Approximately a year after I became sales manager Eric’s performance had reached an all-time low. His daughter was at the peak of her illness, his marriage was in disarray, he was missing work by starting late and leaving early. I suspected that he was drinking heavily due to the bags under his eyes and a noticeable weight gain. Never was it harder for me to walk the line between friend and manager. Up until this point we had made it work, he was receptive to my input and appreciated my attention to his performance. In turn, I treated him with the respect that a man of his experience deserved and I was as lenient as I could be with regards to the number of appointments he was committed to as the ordeal with his daughter continued on. Family court, doctors, and lawyers all work 9-5 and I couldn’t stand in his way in this difficult time. It soon became clear, however, that his work, and consequently my department was suffering. My leadership would soon be called into question.
Little Machiavelli, as Eric and I jokingly called him, summoned me to a meeting with the owner. The topic du jour was Eric’s performance. The owner was a very nice, highly intelligent man who knew everything about his business numbers wise. The rest he relied on my manager for. This relationship was at the center of all of the problems I had with the company. The owner was fed daily doses of one-sided information, carefully crafted to build up the performance of my manager while carefully chipping away at the accomplishments of the other players…like me. In addition, he ran some solid defense in not allowing us access to the owner, insisting on following the “chain of command”, aka the wall of misinformation. I sat before my two supervisors and patiently listened to a long list of things I already knew. Eric’s sales numbers were way down. He looked disheveled and overtired. His customers had been calling in more often, which usually suggested a rep wasn’t making his rounds. None of this was news to me. I was told that disciplinary action was in order. I had been expecting this but the dread that consumed me was as if it came out of the blue. It was also not lost on me that both of my supervisors had never, ever reprimanded him during Eric’s entire career because they were both extremely non-confrontational. I was to be the heavy. I told them that I would write up a disciplinary action proposal, sit him down in person and give him terms. We agreed that he would be subject to a 90-day probation period at the end of which time he would be deemed, by me, as satisfactory or unemployed.
I called Eric and asked him to come into the office the next morning before he started his rounds. He wanted to know why. I explained that I had to review some things with him and left it at that. I didn’t sleep that night. I hadn’t had to be the heavy up to this point and while certainly capable of the role, I didn’t like it. My style was one of collaboration, hands-on assistance and to lead by example. I had disciplined employees before, but not one that I cared as deeply about.
The next morning arrived and I was in early doing my daily reports. Eric had come in without my knowledge and was in my GM’s office. My first instinct was that he was fishing for information about why he was called in. My GM dutifully called me and I went in, made small talk for a few minutes and then asked Eric to join me in the conference room. I was nervous and extremely uncomfortable with the task at hand so I got right to it. I handed him my written disciplinary action which listed in great detail the concerns we had with his performance with statistics to support it. I sat in silence as he read it. At several points, he offered up objections but I was ready with a fact to support my position. Finally, he finished reading it, looked up defeatedly and asked: “Where do we go from here?”
I explained to him that he was grounded for the next three months. He was to be in the office, with me, working his customers from inside. He would leave only by a verified and legitimate appointment. It was explained that I would do whatever I could to help him and to count on my support. It was further explained that I would decide after those 90 days if he still had a job. It was painful for me to say the least. To his credit, he made no excuses and offered no arguments. Amazingly, he said, “This must be hard for you.” Interesting take, as accurate as it was, that he was concerned about me at this point. I accommodated him:
“This is one of the hardest things I have ever had to do” I admitted.
The next 90 days were painful. It was difficult for him to be “grounded” and he struggled with the micro-management. I did my part and worked with him to rebuild his client base, making calls and visits when needed. His numbers began to turn around. As the deadline approached, I was again summoned by my GM regarding his fate. Was he doing the work? Has his attitude improved? Do you want to keep him on? I explained that I did want to keep him. I was then told, shockingly, that I didn’t have the “balls” to let him go. My response was “I’m the only one with enough balls to write him up. You sure didn’t.” This pissed him off to no end and I was told to do whatever I wanted. And I did. I told Eric the next morning that his job was secure and that my assistance would continue if needed. His response almost knocked me off of my chair. “Thank you, Bill,” he said. “You saved me when I couldn’t.”
We became even stronger at that point. Many things would happen after that. I would later be removed from sales because my previous department fell apart in my absence. Eric would be given my old job and we were true peers again, co-managers. He would deal with Little Machiavelli as I did and eventually would quit because of him. But we always stayed in touch until last year.
Our conversation would reveal that he is doing very well professionally and has a very nice girlfriend. While his daughter is still a tremendous emotional burden to him, the situation is “stable” so he is dealing with it. He was in a good place. It occurred to me that the tables have turned. I once sat across from him at the lowest point in his life, in a position of power. Today, he sat across from me as my life was at its lowest point ever. He had no power over me, but he is clearly doing much better than I. And he was kind. A lesser man may take advantage of my situation. I decided that I had to address the elephant in the room.
“You know, my Facebook post wasn’t intended to make anyone feel bad for me. That’s not me.”
“I know that. But your post reminded me that you were out there. That you weren’t feeling well. That maybe you needed a friend. You know, like you were to me.”
I thanked him for reaching out to me. He responded, “You’re one of the few people that I smile every time I think about. I needed to reach out to you, it’s the least I can do.”
He paid the tab, his theory was that now I owed him one and a second lunch was now guaranteed. I thanked him and we walked to the cars.
On the ride home, I marveled at how much he and I had been through together. I fondly remembered my working days. The good and the bad flashed through my mind as I drove. It seems so long ago, the days when my days were full of meetings, I was called upon to make decisions, my presence was felt and my absence was noticed. I accomplished things. My, how my life has changed. To imagine that it was only a mere 10 months ago.
Eric’s text reminded me of one thing, there are people who still care about me out there. That in itself provides hope where there once seemed to be none. I look forward to our next meeting.