Fire or Inspire: The Choice Is Yours

Marc D. Kirshbaum

© 2015 

Shakespeare’s character Dick the Butcher in Henry VI said, “The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.'' I was told a variation of this line the very first day the lawyers in the contracts group started reporting to me as part of my responsibility for operations in a large organization. “Marc, the first thing you are going to have to do is fire the director of contracts.”

Instead of acting on this directive and making my presence known by firing people, I took the leadership and management approach that I have always found to be most effective: I asked questions. I kept an open mind and had one-on-one meetings with all of my direct reports – including the director of contracts.

I respectfully asked questions in a direct manner, focusing on the goals and objectives of the business.  In the case of this particular individual, and in many cases before and after, I applied the principal that before you fire someone for not doing their job well, find out if they have been provided the following in order to perform their job:

1.        1. Strong and supportive management

2.        2. Tools and resources

If and only if #1 and #2 have been provided and the individual is not performing, then it is appropriate to look to the individual as unable to succeed and the source of the problem.  At that point, Shakespeare – or my boss at the time – would be right.

In the case of the contracts director, it seemed that there was sufficient evidence to support the recommendation. Salespeople couldn’t close deals, often times for as long as six months if ever at all because deals were buried in contracts purgatory. When I probed and asked questions, I quickly learned that closing a deal required negotiating and signing some combination of the company’s more than 70 contracts comprised of hundreds of pages. On top of this, no one knew who could approve changes to our contracts. The backlog continued to grow and despite complaints and frustration, the problem was allowed to perpetuate for years. 

As I asked questions in my very first meeting with the director of contracts, I addressed the facts that had been shared with me and he acknowledged the delays, the quantity and complexity of our contracts and that there was no clear authority for being able to agree to modifying contracts. I then asked him, “Do you see these as problems and do you know how to fix them?” Without any hesitation, he said “yes” and proceeded to articulate a concise and clear plan, seeking approval to hire one more person to off-load some of his workload so he could focus his energy on simplifying and reducing the quantity of all of our agreements and work with outside counsel to create a playbook that would objectively define the parameters for authorizing changes to our contracts. He said he needed six months.



“Vision without execution is just hallucination”


Thomas Edison



I listened to his words and his plan with an appreciation for the historical context, and determined that in fact he had not been provided with either (1) strong management or (2) the tools or resources to succeed. With this, I told him to immediately hire an additional contracts manager and get to work with the outside attorneys. It was clear, his future at the company was dependent upon transforming the situation and ending the bottleneck that was seriously impeding revenue.

Within weeks, the director of contracts hired the additional resource and was diligently working behind closed doors to simplify and shrink the agreements and work with outside counsel on a simple yet intricate playbook.

The end product within months: Seventy agreements and hundreds of pages were replaced with a straightforward two-page master agreement, supported by one-page addenda as necessary for specific products. Accompanying this was the deployment of the contracts playbook that streamlined the process for approval and modification of contractual terms.

The impact: During my quarterly visits to our offices around the country, I was repeatedly thanked by sales people who said that these efforts literally shortened our sales cycle from six months to six weeks. Even better, this individual – the contracts director – who had been perceived as failing in his job was brought on stage at the annual sales awards dinner to receive the at-large award for his contribution, resulting in an all-expense paid trip to Hawaii for him and his wife.

To this day, that awards dinner remains one of the highlights and proudest moments of my 20+ year career. I was literally standing on my chair that night, whistling and applauding this transformation and recognition.

So the next time you think you have to fire someone, try asking questions first and taking the time to understand the root cause of the problematic situation. Determine whether the “under-performer” has previously been supported by a strong manager, and whether this person has been provided the tools and resources to be successful. Then, you be that strong manager who determines whether the failure to date falls on the company or the employee.

From there, be a leader, “trust your gut,” apply “the 80/20 rule,” and make the best and right decisions for the business.

Have you had an opportunity to inspire instead of fire? Share this article with others and provide your comments and thoughts.