Volume 43, Issue 7 - July 2008

the Business

by Lyle R. Hill 

It is early June in the year 2008 and a very terrible thing has happened to me. It’s not the first time this thing has happened to me and, because of my Irishness, it is certain not to be the last. But it has happened nonetheless and my hope … in some ways my only hope … is that it will pass quickly so my life can again return to its normal state of disorganization and confusion. 

Once before, when this terrible thing happened to me, I decided to put a name to it. And why shouldn’t I put a name to it? There’s all kinds of “made up names” for all kinds of “semi-questionable maladies” so why shouldn’t my very real malady have a name? So I named it and for more than 25 years I have referred to it as Reflective Rut Syndrome.

I can usually tell when it’s coming. I’ll find myself thinking radical thoughts or dreaming wild and crazy dreams. And then I’ll catch myself getting out a Mamas & Papas CD and spending too much time listening to those old songs from my youth. By the time I recognize its pending arrival, I’m usually already deep within it.

This time around, I fell into the rut quite unexpectedly and, even more surprisingly, I actually know who caused it—pushed me to it, so to speak. It was that wily old rascal Paul Bieber. Totally his fault.

If you were to look into a good dictionary … mine is a Webster’s Collegiate edition from my formative years … it would offer the following as one of the possible definitions for the word reflection: “an effect produced by an influence.” And without any doubt of any kind, my current bout with Reflective Rut Syndrome was an effect produced by the direct influence of Mr. Paul Bieber. That’s why he gets the blame!

I met Paul many years ago at a regional glass show on Long Island. I don’t remember what brought me to this particular show, but as I was walking the exhibit floor I came upon a good sized stretch of green astro turf upon which was stationed a patio table complete with a large open patio umbrella. Around and near to the table were positioned a number of fiber fabric lawn chairs. On the table sat an extremely large jar of stubby little pretzels and an assortment of several cans of soft drinks. Just to one side of the table, about 15 feet away, sat an odd looking bean bag-type board with some difficult-to-read words and numbers on it. In front of the table stood this semi-jovial looking guy … who would later identify himself as one Paul Bieber … tossing a little rubber ball up and down while scanning the crowd and probably asking himself the same exact question I was asking myself at that moment …“What am I doing here?” 

As I got closer, he asked me if I wanted to try to take a try at throwing the little ball into one of the holes on the board for which I could win a very valuable prize. I told him I would rather have some of his pretzels and a diet Coke, so he gave me one of each and I sat down in one of the lawn chairs. He sat down across from me. After finishing off about half of the diet Coke and seven or eight pretzels, he talked me into taking a chance or two on winning a prize by playing his little game. After a couple of tries, I was able to toss one of the little balls into one of the holes, at which point Bieber jumped to his feet and told me that I was a winner. Naturally, I asked what exactly it was that I had won and Bieber enthusiastically explained that I had just won a whole $100 off my next truckload purchase of laminated glass from his current employer. At that moment, I now knew exactly what he was doing there, but I was more confused than ever about what I really was doing there.

After Bieber told me what his company was charging for a full truckload of laminated glass, I told him that the $100 discount being offered as an incentive … based on my winning throw … was laughable. He then told me that if I wasn’t going to buy anything from him that I owed him $2.00 for the diet Coke and another $3.00 for the pretzels. We’ve been friends ever since. 

During the several years that have passed since that chance meeting, I have occasionally bumped into Paul. We’ve shared some baseball tickets, traded some books and, once in a while, shared a conversation or two. Now even though Bieber has become a consultant, I think he’s a likeable guy. A thoughtful guy. An insightful guy. And, from time to time he has been known to hit the proverbial nail right smack dab on its proverbial head with some of his published musings. And in an article that he blogged for USGNN.com™ on June 8, he got one dead center—and in doing so, pushed me into that dreaded reflective rut. 

Bieber’s blog was titled “You Know You Have To Fire Him, But …” and while I didn’t totally agree with some of his comments, I most certainly related to the pain and suffering that dealing with an underperforming employee causes. Unfortunately for me, by the time I had finished reading what Bieber had written, my memory banks were emptying themselves of all kinds of past failings … on my part … relative to how poorly I had dealt with some of those dreaded situations. One of the lines from the Bieber article was particularly haunting. It stated, “It is easier to live with mediocrity than fire someone.” Many years ago I had heard it said that it’s always better to deal with the devil you know than the one you don’t know. In other words, the replacement for the mediocre employee you get rid of could actually be worse. Besides, a lot of organizations seem to muddle along with mediocre people. But just about the time I had convinced myself that maybe I wasn’t all that bad, or at least no worse than most, I remembered good old Eddie ... fast Eddie, as he was referred to most often.

Eddie was phenomenal. Talented, personable and resourceful, but also unbelievably sneaky and self-serving. He was 10 years or more my senior, but I was his boss … or at least I was supposed to be his boss. But he intimidated me, if for no other reason than the fact that I thought we couldn’t possibly survive without him. We were a small, young and fast-growing organization, short on talent, but long on enthusiasm and determination. Thankfully, there were others that I worked with whom I trusted and, from time to time, I would share my concerns regarding fast Eddie. While I regularly found a sympathetic shoulder from the other members of our little team, I often was told that they too feared that we would be in big trouble without the talented yet troublesome fast Eddie. So we lived with his antics … his late arrivals, early departures and often lengthy lunches. When he missed a meeting, we ignored it. When he would demand more money or a better company car, we somehow justified it. There wasn’t a rule he hadn’t bent, but we always looked the other way because after all, we couldn’t afford not to have him on our side. We regularly talked of doing something about him, but we always lost our nerve, fearing the consequences of such a dangerous move. As time went by, the situation only worsened. Every time fast Eddie stepped over the line, we simply drew a new one … a little farther back from the last one … until the day he was caught in an illegal act that had dire implications for not only him, but for all of us. I then had no choice. He was released and as memory now serves me, I don’t believe I slept more than an hour or two a night during the week that followed.

As the days became weeks … after that terrifying moment when fast Eddie was shown the door … an amazing transformation began to occur. The team became more cohesive than ever. Sure, we struggled, and we made some mistakes that were very costly, but we became stronger and most importantly, we survived and ultimately found a very suitable replacement proving what has been said by so many people so many times … no one is irreplaceable … especially in the long term. But in spite of the seemingly happy, or at least acceptable, ending to this story, it still bothers me. For you see, if I had been a better manager, a less fearful manager, I would have handled the whole situation better. I would have taken control of it instead of letting it control me. And maybe, a very talented person could have been spared and the entire organization made better for it. Of course there were others too who weren’t handled well. Plenty of mistakes over the years … cases where the wrong person was kept too long and situations where someone who could have been the right person was given up on too soon. If only I had been better, would have developed a plan similar to what Bieber talks about in his USGNN blog. Who knows how much pain and aggravation could have been avoided? And even when the outcome didn’t change, think of all the time and anguish that could have been saved by simply getting to the final determination a little sooner because problematic people never get better by themselves. 

And now … all these years after the thoughts and stories of fast Eddie and so many other of my failures have been pushed far back into the creases of my long ago memories, along comes Bieber with his helpful, albeit much too late for me, advice. And so, into the rut I fall. To lay there and reflect on failures past and perhaps shortcomings still. May you not sleep tonight Paul Bieber … wherever you are!

Lyle R. Hill is president of MTH Industries of Chicago. Mr. Hill’s opinions are solely his own and not necessarily those of this magazine.

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