When I first became CEO I read everything I could get my hands on about management, leadership, business strategy and how to run a successful company. Some of these books seemed to speak to my values, offering wisdom and advice that made sense and felt comfortable. Others, written by business gurus, inspired and overwhelmed me, none more so than Good to Great by Jim Collins. I love that book. I learned a great deal from it. And I lost sleep at night worrying about how to become a Level 5 leader. But it was the second stage of attempting to take my company from “good to great” that really made me appreciate what no one really spells out in the business books.
That second stage, as devotees of Good to Great know, is “First Who: Get the right people on the bus.” Talk about speaking to me! The line is taken from one of my favorite books, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe, and is a quote from Ken Kesey, during his Merry Prankster days, “There are going to be times when we can’t wait for somebody. Now, you’re either on the bus or off the bus.” It was the line my friends and I embraced in college, using it as shorthand to mean this person either “got us” or didn’t. We judged all who crossed our paths rather harshly in using it, enjoying the freedom that college offers brainy girls who read a lot to form a clique…and a cliché… of their own. I felt slightly giddy. I was going to be on Jim Collins’ bus!
I had fired people before. Many times. There was the young man that was judged as “the employee most likely to go postal” by his colleagues and, after being terminated, sat on the curb across the street from the building for weeks, watching us come in and leave. Or the young man who showed up an hour late for his morning interview, convinced me that his car broke down and, after he was hired, never made it once to the office on time. Those were learning experiences. And professional HR staff helped me every step of the way.
This was different. This was an old lady who had devoted years of service to the company. She lived alone. She was slowly losing her mind. I am going to call her “Martha” after the secretary in Joseph Heller’s Something Happened. When I first arrived at the company, I asked a senior executive about different employees. He described our Martha, “If you wanted a chicken plucked, Martha would get the feathers off that chicken for you. But you had better specify HOW you wanted that chicken plucked, because one day she might pluck it, the next day, depending on her mood, she might use a straight razor on it and on the third she might wax it. But she would get the feathers off.”
Ours was an idiosyncratic company and we tolerated Martha being different for a while. Martha insisted on calling me Miss Love because it was too disrespectful to call me Kathi. She started having trouble making copies. She would get into shouting matches with the receptionist. Simple tasks would get hopelessly mangled. She muttered under her breath and called people names. A rumor began circulating that she was carrying a gun in her purse.
The end drew near when Martha would come in each morning near tears, insisting that someone had come into her apartment and stole a dress or a pair of shoes and she needed to go home and change the locks. We called her children and said how worried we were about Martha. Then Martha came in, telling us she had met a guy and was engaged and really wanted me to meet him. At lunch she ushered in a young man – a REALLY young man – whom she had met on the subway and they were going shopping for her engagement ring. We called her children again.
The locksmith called. Martha was sexually harassing him. He refused to change her locks again, now that he had changed them seven or eight times. He claimed she was crying “burglary” as excuse to get him to come over to her house. He refused to be alone with her. The office number was the emergency contact number Martha had given the locksmith.
The disruptions in the office had to stop. We called her children and informed them that tomorrow would be Martha’s last day. We would send her home in a car and ship the personal contents of her desk to the apartment. We would give her a generous severance. When the time came to tell her, she took my hand and said, “Miss Love, I don’t want to leave. I have nothing else in my life. Tell me what you want me to do and I’ll do it better. I just want to please you. Please, please don’t make me leave. ” My assistant, Martha and I all walked to the car, crying.
Martha started walking around the neighborhood in a long, black velvet cape. She also wrote a rambling letter to my boss and the board about what a bitch I was, and her children wrote an addendum to that letter, emphasizing how badly the company had treated their mother. Shortly after that letter was sent, Martha died.
My conscience is clear in how we treated Martha. But getting her off the bus was painful and messy and human.