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At one of the big distributors where I was a VP, I once hired an individual (we'll call him Harold) for a high-level job who seemed like the perfect candidate. In interviews, he demonstrated great intellect. Additionally, he was articulate, good natured and friendly and said all the right things about his team behaviors. I was thrilled to land this candidate and get him plugged into some very important projects.
Less than a week later, my heart sank when one of my most trusted employees came into my office, closed the door and said, “Harold is a different person when you’re not in the room.” He went on to describe a person with terrible team skills – dismissive, arrogant and condescending – but not when the boss was around.
I tried to develop this individual – I sent him to workshops on leadership and team skills and set up sessions to develop our own team so that he and others who reported to me could share feedback in a structured environment. But no matter what I tried, the complaints poured in, not just from within my department but from across functions: “Harold acts like a good team member when Ian’s around but his true nature comes out when Ian leaves the room.”
Time to Move On
After several months of effort – during which my feedback to this individual became more pointed, specific, and well-documented – I terminated Harold and hired someone else for the job. Harold had made essentially zero progress in his behaviors over the course of his employment. He’d tell me the right things when we had one-on-ones but made no changes to his behavior when I wasn’t around.
This was a challenging period for our team. Until Harold joined us, the team had worked together very effectively – meaning we had planned well, communicated well and managed conflict professionally and expeditiously. Strong leaders are going to experience conflict, but if they have underlying respect for each other and follow agreed-upon protocols for managing disagreements, the intellectual skirmishes make the team stronger rather than eroding trust.
Harold never grasped that nor saw the need for it. I knew that earlier in his career, he’d worked for an autocratic leader. Harold claimed during interviews that he wanted to work for me because he had hated being in that environment and wanted to join an energized, positive, high-performing team. But the reality was that the autocratic manager had formed Harold’s view of how leaders behaved and he wasn’t able or willing to embody the values he claimed to believe in.
When I fired Harold, the “stars” on my team collectively sighed with relief and told me, one at a time, that it had taken me too long to get rid of him. In my mind, I was trying to be fair and give Harold exposure to a new teamwork paradigm so he could learn and adapt. But perhaps I was so invested in the choice that I was too patient in waiting for him to develop.
The Canary in the Coal Mine
When it was finally all over and the team began to recover, I reflected on the experience. It occurred to me that in my 30 years of professional management, I’d heard the same feedback on a handful of occasions – a certain individual was “not the same person” when I was not in the room.
I’d had to get rid of all of those people.
When you manage for decades, you are going to have to fire a few employees. I’ve been blessed to find (or inherit) great people in my years of management. I haven’t fired many people (especially for team behaviors) over the years. But if I drew a circle with the names of employees I’d terminated for bad team skills and another circle with the names of individuals who “weren’t the same” people when I wasn’t in the room, there’d be a lot of overlap between the two.
It’s not possible for any manager to hire perfectly. The most sophisticated interview and assessment process can’t account for the incredible complexity and nuances of human behavior. But managers can act quickly once they discover they’ve hired the wrong person. Hearing something like, “Harold is a different person when you’re not in the room” is the canary in the coal mine for me.
What hiring practices do you put in place to prevent hiring the wrong person? How can you tell when you’ve made a mistake and need to react? How long do you wait and when do you decide it’s time to give up and move on?
I’d love to hear your input. Please comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.