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I remember the first time I had to fire someone. It was my first job. Ever.
Only months before, I had been sitting in my university physics class when a job application arrived on my lap, on a clipboard no less, being passed back and forth down the rows of students. And everyone knows that great jobs arrive on clipboards in your lap, so this made perfect sense to me. In big shiny letters at the top it said “Do you want to make $10,000?” Yes. As a matter of fact I do want to make $10,000. And so began the process where I became the manager of a college student painting business. If you are thinking “Ah, David…. You see that red flag waving in your face?”- you are correct. But I ignored it.
I also ignored the flag that I had never managed anyone before. And, for good measure, that I’d never painted before. Not even as a kid. Not even on paper. But really, how hard could it be? Painting and managing; managing and painting…. No problem.
Sadly, my problems were compounded because from the time period of January when I got the job, to May, when painting would begin, the manager’s job was to drum up business. Unfortunately, what I lacked in painting and managerial skill, I made up for in spades in salesmanship. In fairness, the product I had almost sold itself. You, said homeowner, could buy yourself hours of free time and in so doing, you, great patron and philanthropist, would be supporting the efforts to pay for the tuition of college students- students who were working towards a valuable and productive lifetime in society. What could feel better than that? You, noble customer, are an amazing person! Of COURSE I would be happy to provide you an estimate. No, it’s no trouble. I’m just honored to provide you the opportunity. Or something to that effect.
After an aggressive selling season prior to executing a single job, I had $50,000 of sales. My recollection of that number was that I had the highest sales in the region by a massive margin and equally large was what I didn’t know at the time: my sales : ability ratio was likely wider than all the franchises put together. Unfazed and unaware, I assumed my abilities as a manager would be equally legendary.
So logically, I started the summer with sixteen employees. I had interviewed and hired each one myself following a rigorous interview process:
“Can you paint?”
“I don’t know, I think so.”
“You’re perfect, you’re hired!”
(Admittedly, for the first 15 years of my career after painting, I hired people pretty much the same way to not surprisingly, mixed results.)
Having scheduled virtually all of my preseason sales work in May, I actually needed sixteen employees at the beginning of the summer. So, with my hand picked crew by my side – it was time make history. I was going to break some records, of that I was sure. $10,000? I’m going to make $25,000 this summer!
I did not account for Dave. I ignored the red flags that came with Dave, even on that first day I interviewed him. I’ll admit, he seemed a bit spacey. Maybe painting wasn’t his life’s ambition. I could appreciate that. But, he did have a pulse, I needed people and so I hired him anyway.
Week one, I sent him to paint. He spilled a five gallon pail on the customer’s driveway. He didn’t tell me about it. I got a call from the customer saying “What the F@&K is wrong with you, there is paint all over my G.D driveway….” When I called Dave he said he hadn’t noticed and 5 hours later, solvent in hand, we cleaned the driveway. Mistakes are made. It’s ok. Maybe we should try a new role.
Week two, I sent him to sand. He broke a window. OK, a bit clumsy. Could have happened to anyone. I paid for the window, and changed roles for him again.
Week three, I sent him to power wash a deck with chemicals. You know, the chemicals that strip the paint off previously painted wood so that you can repaint it? THOSE chemicals.
I don’t know that I will ever forget that conversation. First the elation of my brilliance.
Me: “Hey Dave, how are you? Did you get that deck done today?”
Dave: “Oh yeah; went great; the paint came right off. That stuff is crazy! I wouldn’t want to spill it.”
Me: “No, you wouldn’t want to spill it. You ready to do it again tomorrow? I have another customer ready to go!”
Him: “Absolutely. I can’t wait. I really like this job.”
This was the moment of my profound pride. I hung up the phone and stood there smiling. I had turned a problem employee into a success story. I had found his greatness and it was clear to me, at that moment, I could conquer the world. Sales, operations, AND management skills? In one body?! Somebody catch me because I’m going to faint!
Then, the opposite of elation. Let’s call it the sound of a red flag military parade held at my expense, full of trumpets, drums and Jim Carey making the world’s most annoying noise. I could hear the phone ringing, but my euphoria and excitement about my natural leadership and looming greatness were slowing my move to answer the phone. On the 4th ring, I picked up.
Customer: “Hi, it’s Bob. How are you?”
Me: “Great. How’s the deck looking? Ready for a new coat of paint?”
Customer: “That’s actually why I’m calling. I haven’t seen anyone show up yet.”
Me: “Right. Hi. No, I’m here. So, just so I’m clear, the deck at your house, where you are right now, is not stripped of paint and no one has been to your house?”
Customer (out loud): “Yes. That’s what I said”
Me (Out loud): “I will get right on that and send someone over right away.”
Me (In my head): O. M. F. G……
In circumstances like this, hope is a powerful emotion. Please, don’t let me have lost my house keys. I’ll just check my pocket again. Ah yes, here they are. Phew. Naturally, I picked up the phone.
Me: “Hey Dave, how are you doing?”
Dave: “Hi. Good, thanks. You?”
Me: “You know, I’ve been better, actually. Hey, could you tell me the address you went to this morning?”
Dave: “Sure can, I have it right here 4983 Forest.”
Me: “Actually, I was hoping you went to 4893 Forest.”
Dave: “Nope. Definitely 4983.”
I sent him to power wash. He power washed the wrong deck.
I am not kidding. This really happened. I hung up the phone and I started to cry.
Out of the sixteen employees I had when the year began, I finished the season with three. And by season I mean July. Twelve quit. Painting, it turns out, is not that much fun and I was a horrible manager. I sold my book of business to someone else and went into a small depression before I headed back to university in the fall, absolutely sure of only one thing: that I would never paint again.
The event punctuated the worst summer of my life–a summer in which I did not pass go and I did not collect $10,000. I underestimated, over employed, under delivered and made no money. For my troubles, I ended up with a $1,000 truck that had black paint in the bed of it from when Dave spilled the five gallon paint onto the customers driveway and this story.
Why do I tell this story? A cautionary tale with three lessons. First, our nature is to detect danger- fight or flight; run away from the mountain lion; etc. As a result, we are trained to identify red flags but when it isn’t a mountain lion, we almost always ignore them and hope for the best. Your boss doesn’t like you but you still hope for a big promotion; your partner says one thing but does another every single time; your best friend is drinking themselves to sleep every night. These are red flags. Do something about them. Second, and deeply related, hope is not a strategy. It is unlikely that the source of the red flag(s) is going to change. They are simply going to get worse until they power wash the paint off someone’s deck, which is super unfortunate when that person is not a paying customer. And third, and most importantly, you have a group of people that will give you advice when you ask. So when you ask them: “Should I start the year with 16 employees?” they will answer “No… F’ing… Way.”