Why does it seem like the boss is sometimes the last to know? Featured

10:23am EDT August 1, 2012
Why does it seem like the boss is sometimes the last to know?

We’ve all seen it before, where co-workers in a company recognize a problem performer, but these same people can’t understand why the boss hasn’t yet taken action or has taken so long to come to grips with the issue.

Conversely, as the boss, how many times have you made what you considered to be an extremely difficult personnel decision and have done so only after protracted analysis, a fair measure of agony and more than an adequate amount of second guessing yourself?

Case in point: One of your top managers has hit the skids, and in your gut, you know that a change is needed. Fearing the worst, you play over and over in your mind the potential negative consequences that could occur if you were to fire this individual. Finally, after all else fails, you pull the trigger and decide to part ways with the onetime A player. Before you tell associates, you rehearse in your mind how you will explain your decision. Once you gather your lieutenants together and finally utter the previously unthinkable, the reaction is almost a unanimous, “What took you so long?”

After you breathe a sigh of relief, your team members start making not-so-subtle comments suggesting that they weren’t surprised, followed by a litany of examples of why your now fallen superstar wasn’t hacking it.

This begs a bigger question: Were you really the last one to realize that there was a problem? Furthermore, did it actually take you too long to make that final decision that, as they say in spy novels, this person was “beyond salvage”?

This provides a good opportunity for introspective analysis. The end result just might help you understand that you were not the last to know, but in fact, you may have been the first to recognize what was looming on the horizon.

Virtually every leader has to rely on experience, combined with instincts, to decide when to either cut and run or try to rectify a problem. Being an executive requires being a very good teacher. When a pupil is not measuring up, the first question is how can you help and what can you do to improve a person’s performance? Most everyone at one point in his or her career hits a rough spot, and with a bit of mentoring, a fair number of wayward employees can turn the corner and again blossom. Also, it’s more economical to at least try to turn someone around after investing time and money in developing the individual. After a certain period, the employee has gained valuable empirical knowledge about the ins and outs of the company and, just maybe, a little extra coaching can make the difference.

However, in some situations, your optimism for achieving Mother Teresa status through patient mentoring wanes, and you begin to come to grips with the fact that it’s time for a change. You then map out your what-if scenarios. Not only one but several. You ruminate over your game plan until you have the best probable solution locked and loaded in your mind for that moment when you have concluded that you’ve run out of road.

Most times, trying yet failing is not a bad thing; actually, it is a good thing and the way a responsible leader must approach an important human resource decision. You can never forget that you’re dealing with the life and livelihood of a person and his or her family, which can be adversely affected by the decision. Many top employees who veer off course and don’t work out were, at one time, effective and loyal contributors to the organization. It’s mandatory to make the effort not only to try to stem the negative tide of poor performance, but also to develop an alternative replacement and transition strategy. This takes time and can be a very solitary task depending on the level of the person to be replaced.

In reality, the boss knows in his heart of hearts before most, if not all, others when something ultimately has to give. Being the boss requires making the difficult decisions after meaningful deliberation and then living with them and making them work.

The boss the last to know? Highly unlikely. Instead, he probably is the first to know when the time to act was finally right.

Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax in 1988, starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money. During a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales of approximately $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in December 2003. In 2010, Feuer launched another retail concept, Max-Wellness, a first of its kind chain featuring more than 7,000 products for head-to-toe care. Feuer serves on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and building entrepreneurial enterprises. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-wellness.com.

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