Ask a CEO, and they’ll probably agree: firing someone is the hardest part of the job. And not just because firing people feels bad. (Which it does.) But also because of what it reveals about yourself as a leader and as a person.
I’m part of a peer group of about a dozen CEOs. We meet once a month as a group, and weekly with a coach who leads the group. A couple times a year we’ll be having drinks, when someone decides to start a little game.
You have to fire someone. Right now. Who do you fire? And why?
No excuses, no hemming and hawing. You name a name, or you go out of business. Ready, set, go.
It’s an interesting question. How would you answer it? How do you expect the CEOs you know to answer this question? I’ve seen several variations.
The immediate answer. You name exactly the person. No hesitation, and8 you know exactly why. they’re a problem, they’re underperforming. you just don’t like them.
The thoughtful approach. The second person thinks the first answer was a little harsh. Their team is all super special and valuable, so they can’t decide. Can they think it over some more?
Them’s the rules. The last person finds a clever loophole. We have a policy for that. Last-in-first-out. Seniority. Some simple heuristic that’s easy to understand and fair.
It’s an interesting game, but maybe not for the reasons you initially expect. I think this exercise is most interesting because of what happens next.
The whole point of this game isn’t necessarily to have a correct answer, much less to make a decision to actually fire someone. It’s like the Kobayashi Maru of management: there is no correct answer, and you will fail. The interesting and useful part is how, and what that reveals about you, and your team.
Did you have an immediate answer? Well then, if it’s so obvious, why haven’t you fired that person yet? What are you waiting for? If you have such a clear view that this person isn’t value, then why are they still on the team? Are you afraid of confrontation? Is there nepotism or some other personal dynamics or organizational politics? Are you afraid you can’t find their replacement? Or are you just so aggressive at firing on a hair-trigger that you’re creating a toxic work environment that doesn’t invest in anyone’s career development?
We’re just getting started here, because the thoughtful approach person isn’t getting off any easier. Because let’s refresh ourselves on the rules here: you have to fire someone, or go out of business. Is everyone on your team so important that losing any one of them will end the business? What is your contingency plan in case one of them gets hit by a bus? Or are you just trying too hard to please everyone, and failing to measure or uphold any kind of standards for excellence?
When the game is going well, the last person is squirming a bit.
The policy approach has some surface benefits. It’s neutral; it’s fair. But it suffers the same flaw as the last: are you really not willing or able to distinguish between the value generated by different team members? Or perhaps do you think that formulas and rules are so important that you’re willing to keep a mediocre employee and lose an excellent one? What if the person you just hired was key to the future of the company? What if someone is a bad fit and miserable in their role? Is the appearance of fairness so much more important than a healthy company?
Stuff like this is simultaneously my least favorite part of the job, but also one of my favorite parts about being part of a peer group of fellow CEOs.
We almost never have clear, actionable advice for each other. (Although when that happens, you’d better execute, pronto.) Mostly we turn our experiences into really poignant and probing questions for each other. The kind that help us expand our imaginations, force us to discover and defend our principles. And in so doing, discover a path for ourselves.