#11 When High-Level Leaders Fail

Show Notes

What happens when you have a high-level leader in your organization who ends up failing in their job role? Sometimes you ask yourself: Was it us? Was it them? Did we set the right expectations? In this episode, we discuss some of the reasons why things might go wrong and the warning signs to watch out for when you’re hiring your next high-level leader.

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Chantel Ray: Hey, guys. Welcome to the Real Life Leadership podcast, where we share real-life stories from real-life leaders to help you become a better leader in your organization. I have two amazing co-hosts today. I have Heather Roemmich, who's always with us, and Brian Dell'Olio.

Heather: Whoo-hoo.

Brian: Hi, Chantel. How are you?

Chantel Ray: Welcome, guys. Well, today we are talking about high-level leaders failing, and we've had our share of people doing that. Brian, let's start out by talking about at another company that you were at, watching high-level leaders fail.

Brian: Sure, yeah. One company that I was familiar with was a retailer, and they would recruit high-level leaders from other retailers to come in and be leaders in their buildings. On paper, when they would recruit these leaders, they should be perfect fits, right? They've been district managers, they've climbed up the leadership ranks at other retailers. They have all this experience, all the right education. They come in, and they have not been successful. One example in particular was this district manager that came from PacSun. She came into that retail environment and just ...

Chantel Ray: This retail environment was a very high-tech company?

Brian: Correct.

Chantel Ray: Something like a Verizon, a Best Buy, an Apple, that you needed to number one be high-tech?

Brian: Correct. You're coming to ... it's almost a completely different game, right? It's high-velocity retail.

Chantel Ray: If you're going from somewhere like PacSun, which is a retailer, going into Verizon or Apple, which is very, very high-tech, one, selling clothes, you don't really need to be that high-tech. You're using the cash register and a few computer systems. Apple or Verizon, we're talking about a different ballgame.

Brian: You're coming from folding shirts, right, to thousand-dollar supercomputers that make phone calls, right? Like a totally different ballgame.

Chantel Ray: Yeah, which if you went from a Verizon to an Apple, that's a lot easier transition as well anyway.

Brian: Absolutely. When this particular leader came from that environment into this tech retailer, they completely struggled. You would see them trying to deal with callouts, and they would struggle with the systems. It was almost like a frenetic energy about them. They just couldn't handle both the strategy of, okay, what do I need to reorganize my day with my staff, to literally struggling with the system that they needed to do in order to make that change. As a result, they're just sitting ...

Chantel Ray: If you think about Apple, their systems, they make their systems so easy that even if you're not that technology-driven, you should be able to figure out those systems, wouldn't you say?

Brian: I would even say that at some of those companies, there are third-party companies that make a better solution, right? When it comes to creating your employee schedule, Apple or Verizon may not be creating their own system to do that. They're contracting out from ADP or Chronos to get that system. In some cases, if you're a high-level leader and you've used that system before somewhere else, you could be using the exact same system or a system that's very similar to what you've used before, because it's not necessarily a proprietary system.

Chantel Ray: On paper she looks like a million bucks, and she came in, she couldn't use the systems. What else could she not do?

Brian: When she would get presented with an issue from an employee, where they would need to make a decision about a customer scenario or something like that, the scenarios that you're dealing with with customers in those types of environments are so much more complex. I think about Best Buy having a Geek Squad, right, where they're replacing hard drives or they're fixing computers. People's personal data are on those computers, right? If I go into PacSun and you won't give me $5 back on a shirt I bought, okay, that's completely different than a situation where somebody's personal photos from their kids' life so far are literally at risk.
It's completely different. Somebody who's been successful in that old environment and are now trying to come into an environment where those are the things that are at stake, it's just a completely different animal, so she struggled in those situations. She didn't know what to do, right, and the team is looking to her to make a decision about a repair scenario or something like that, and she doesn't know what to do.

Chantel Ray: Well, here's the thing that we've found, is we've hired a ton of people from Apple, actually. It's funny, and all the people at Apple still love me. I'm thinking, like every time I go into the Apple Store. One Apple Store, I think we've recruited at least four or five people from that one store, high-level managers, and I go in there and I'm kind of like ducking my head and they're like, "What's your name," and I'm like, "Shantal." They're like, "Oh, your picture's on the wall back here in the break room," but they're not. They're like, "Oh, how's Brian doing? How's this one doing? Say hi to this one."
I mean, they're so nice, but when we've hired people from a Verizon, from an Apple, from a tech company, they've really just done a great job, and that's something we need to think about as well. Because some of these retailers, some of the things they're doing as basic, just because you are good as a manager there, like you said, it's a different level that you're talking about.

Brian: I remember one time we had this going-away party, and the situation we've been talking about, the story about the lady from PacSun. We had this ... I can't even remember. She wanted to get this cookie for the employee that was leaving or had a good day or something like that, right, and her boss was saying, "You can't give a cookie to an employee every time somebody does something right or has a tough day." It's not sustainable, right? It just doesn't set the right scenario.

Chantel Ray: Who's giving the cookie? The PacSun lady?

Brian: The PacSun lady.

Chantel Ray: The PacSun lady is taking her own personal money?

Brian: Yes.

Chantel Ray: Giving everyone a big cookie?

Brian: No, for one person. Bought one person a cookie, in one scenario, right? The general manager of that location did not want that to happen. She's like, "That is not ... it's not sustainable for us to give out cookies in every one of those, you know, somebody who's leaving, right? They've announced they've leaving the store, they've quit or whatever, and as a goodbye gift it's not sustainable for us to do that every time." Well, she went and did it anyway and gave it to the employee, and I remember the boss of the store looked at me and said, "I can't believe she went and did that. That's the hill you're going to die on, is giving this cookie out?"
It sets a precedent in those environments, right, that like some people get a cookie and some people don't. It just doesn't make sense. It's like that's the battle that you're going to try to fight, is to give cookies to people when they've had a good day or a bad day or whatever the scenario is? It almost just showed how detached from the larger reality of what's happening in those environments that she is, because that was a scenario she could control.

Chantel Ray: She stood her ground and went and bought the cookie on that, but she couldn't answer people's questions on the floor?

Brian: Correct. Correct.

Chantel Ray: Right, so she ... okay, so she has a lot of problems, I would say.

Brian: Correct.

Chantel Ray: Lots of red flags there for her.

Brian: Right.

Chantel Ray: What do you think that people listening to this, what lesson do they learn from this? On paper, this person looked like, yeah, they can manage a similar style, a similar role, but failed miserably.

Brian: Right. One of the things that I think that businesses and organizations are starting to really come up with and realize, right, is that the world is becoming more and more complex. The only thing that is the same is that everything will be different, and so many environments are functioning like that now, right? There are fewer and fewer jobs where you go in to work every day and you bend metal in the exact same way, because a machine's doing that, right? Those jobs where you have this repetitive nature are kind of going away, and the jobs that are replacing them are much more complex. They're different.
They're individual solutions, right? If you're a programmer, every client that you're working with is different or has a different need, and software is different each time. Those are the jobs that are replacing those, and the world is becoming more and more complex. Really the takeaway, right, is that when you bring in leaders, the people who are going to be most successful in those roles are the people who are capable of dealing with that change.
The way that you quantify that change or a person's ability to deal with it is through something called learning agility, and there are assessments and tools that you can get as part of your selection process to really try to sniff out what someone's learning agility actually is. That would be kind of the takeaway, I think, from that scenario, right, of the lady from PacSun, is how could they do that recruiting process. If they had done a better job to try to really understand what her learning agility would be like, would she be able to deal with that ambiguity that every customer situation is now different?

Chantel Ray: That's a question you want to ask everyone, is how do you deal with change, because we talk about it all the time. You know, we know if you want to work at a company that doesn't change and just stays the same, then you're going to be working at a company like Blockbuster, who is now out of business, Montgomery Ward, who is now out of business, the cab company which is being taken over by Uber, but you know what I'm saying? If you just wanted to do the same thing and not change and just stay where you are, then great. You're going to be at a dying company. We all know that. That's leadership 101, so you've got to have leaders that embrace the change.
You know, I had someone that told me just recently that they're working at a company that they can't stand. I said, "Why do you not like it," and he said, "Every day it's just constant change." Then I gave him those examples and I said, "Well, you want to be at a company that is changing," and he's like, "No. If it was new systems, new processes, new things like that, then I wouldn't mind." He's like, "What we're doing is they're coming up with a strategy, then deciding it doesn't work, then six months later going back and then flip-flopping." That's when people really don't embrace it, is when they feel like, "Oh, we made a change, that was a bad decision. We didn't think it through all the way, and now we're changing it back."

Brian: Right.

Heather: It's a rollout problem.

Chantel Ray: That is a rollout problem, for sure.

Brian: What you're seeing as well too is that more and more leaders are faced with questions or decisions that they're making as part of their daily job and their daily routine that are not the same every time, right? This idea of learning agility is taking information you learned from one scenario and applying it in a different scenario that looks completely different, and you have to be able to kind of translate what you learned from before and put it into a different context.
That's what you need from leaders, right, because every customer scenario, every ... you know, in your business, Chantel, at Chantel Ray ... every transaction's different, right? Your leaders in your offices, each deal that an agent's working on is different than another one, and so you need somebody who can kind of navigate through that.

Chantel Ray: Let's give a specific example, Heather, of a situation that we had with a high-level leader that went bad. First just give the scenario.

Heather: We had a person whose name is Alex, and basically again on paper, looked great. Tons of experience, reference check, again tons of experience.

Chantel Ray: Worked at other real estate companies with lots of management experience, at least for other management companies, and he got good references from those.

Heather: Yeah, people loved him.

Chantel Ray: He seemed so likeable.

Heather: Oh, yeah. Yeah, and so then we started seeing like a pattern as the time started to go on. You know, he did some training with us, then he went to the office, did some training, and then we kind of let him go because they were experienced, right? You don't like want to hover over a high-level leader. What we found was that we started having some issues of just not consistent work hours. You know, not being there for agents.

Chantel Ray: He would leave in the middle of the day.

Heather: Not responding to agents timely. You know, not having timely response to agents, and so the red flags kind of started popping up and we were like, "Wait, what's going on there? This doesn't match the person that was on the paper, the person that we did reference checks with and the person that we first met in the interview." Then we had to make a decision, kind of, as to what was going on there.

Chantel Ray: I think for me, what I learned from that was that when you have a high-level management position, you should not announce that they are that person for at least three to four weeks, until you are 100% ... I mean, you're never going to be 100%, right, but you're 90, 95% confident this is your leadership guy. For me, if we would have had the manager that was ... so the scenario was this.
The manager that was in that office was moving up to a higher-level position, so that first manager should have stayed with the other manager for at least three to four weeks to kind of see how they were doing, until we knew. Because we would have seen some of these signs, that he was just gone from the office for three to four hours, randomly gone.

Heather: I think too ... we talked about this in a previous podcast ... you know, sometimes, depending on at what stage your business is. Like we're a very entrepreneurial company. We don't have positions where people just get to kind of sit around and collect a paycheck, like the fat and happy.

Brian: Right.

Heather: When you get into big corporations ... and I'm not saying that people in big corporations aren't doing their fair share ... but you get to a point where you've done the time, you've done the hard work, and now you're in a position where you're not having to work as hard but you're making the money you want to make. We're just not a company like that because we're growing every single day, and so sometimes when you recruit these people that are making that lateral move, or even sometimes when they're moving a little bit down, it's hard for them to get in an environment like ours where even in our highest-level positions, we are working like a freight train.

Brian: We are working every day to grow our businesses, to grow our office, and so it is a mindset change. Especially when someone's been in the business for quite a while, they're not used to the pace that we go at. I think that you also have to look at, although we may have a candidate that has the experience, they may not have the grit or grind or just willingness to grow technologically in order to be successful in certain positions, and you may need that candidate who has less experience but is like a sponge, and you can develop and grow.

Chantel Ray: I know that one of the things is the difference between a thinker and a doer. That's what you have to evaluate. We had a guy that came in as an inside sales director, and he blew us away on the interview because he was a thinker. He came in to observe, and we said, "Can you spend three hours in our inside sales department and tell us everything that was wrong with the department?" He came in and gave us a laundry list of 25 things, and the way he articulated it was unbelievable, and we were all like mouths open, wide open, dropped, and we're like, "Wow, this is our guy."
The problem was, he could tell you what the problem was. He couldn't fix any of those problems, and he wasn't the doer to do it. He was the thinker, and in my opinion, if you want to be in a very fast-growing company, you need somebody who is a 50% thinker, but they're also a 50% doer. Actually, you really want them to be 80% doer, but at the absolutely minimum 50/50. What you're looking for is someone who's 80% doer and 20% thinker. They can still think, but they can make it happen.

Brian: I think one of the things you have to sniff out in the interview process ... and this kind of goes to knowing what your own culture is in your organization, right ... some people are great on paper. They have all the experience, just like the story you guys just told about your manager. If they're coming from a culture that's more maintenance, right ... I'm with a big company, a lot of the systems are in place, it's just kind of about making incremental growth, or maintaining but growing, but trying to stay competitive ... they're not growing at a fast rate.
Those types of people are going to be used to and ingrained in a different type of environment, whereas when you come to an entrepreneurial-based company that moves so much faster, that's going to be like shock to them, right, and that is a difficult transition.

Chantel Ray: I have a perfect example of that. We had a guy that we hired as our inside sales director position. He came from Geico, had great reviews, everything like that. That's the perfect example. He did the same thing every single day. Nothing changed. All he did was listen to calls. He graded the calls, he took care of any HR issues. Well, when he came over here, we needed someone who could help implement some policies that we needed to implement. We needed someone who could do all kinds of different things.

Heather: Right, and like create systems. We needed somebody who ... you know, we had a baby. We had a baby call center, and so we were looking for someone like ... I'm not experienced in call centers. I've never worked for a call center. Chantel's not experienced in call centers, she hasn't worked for one, so we hire an expert in that. Where do you go? You go to ...

Chantel Ray: Geico.

Heather: ... one of the best places in the country, right? We had a manager who was looking for an advancement. We interviewed him, great. What our vision for them was, we needed someone to come in and say, "Nope, you need this phone system. Get rid of that. I want to see this many calls made a day." We had no idea how to measure them, to put those things in place. They literally were starting at the ground level and got to build a building. Well, the problem was, they don't have a builder's license. They had no idea how to build a building. They knew how to maintain the building, but they couldn't make the house themselves.

Brian: Exactly. There's a difference.

Heather: That is a huge difference. What we've learned was that, had we been, you know, five more years down the road, he would have been a fantastic manager for that department. He could have maintained and probably elevated some of their games by coaching and growing, but he was not somebody who could come in and build it from the ground up.

Brian: That's such a great analogy. Heather, there is a difference between a maintenance worker and a builder, and that's exactly ... you need to know, your company, what do you need.

Heather: Right, yeah.

Chantel Ray: The truth is, though, honestly your goal is to get every person in your leadership ... you can have the people at the lower levels be your maintenance, right, but your high-level people, they need to be growers. We had a very hard conversation with one of our employees this past week, and we said to them, "We believe you have the potential to be a grower, but right now you are just in maintenance mode, and you're doing all these things that are in the weeds. You need to go, `Okay, how do we grow the business every day? What do we need to do to take it to the next level,' and not just be pulling the weeds here and there."

Heather: Yeah. Yeah. I think we should talk about what are some things that we can do to figure this out about people before we get them too far down the path. What are some things that companies can do to say, "Okay, I need to see you do XYZ before I put you in this role"?

Brian: Right. I think one of the first things is, you know, when you're thinking about a selection process, right? First is what type of interview questions are you asking, right? Asking questions that ask a candidate to tell a story, "Tell me about a time when." Don't ask questions that say, "What would you do," because it's much easier for me to speculate and say, "Well, this is what I would do." You want candidates to tell you, "Tell me about a time when you have done something," so that you get a story about when they've done that or exhibited that behavior before, and that allows you to then go deeper. "Oh, what was that like? What was the end result?"
You kind of go. You can dig and uncover a lot more by asking them to be reflective on a situation in their past that they've dealt with. I think that's number one. Then number two is having some assessments around personality, right, something like a DiSC test and adding a learning agility test to see, are they somebody who's going to be able to learn on the fly and deal with that ambiguity that exists in your business.

Heather: Yeah. The other thing too is, so I'm very, very good at memorizing something, and I can memorize it and spit it right back out to you, but I probably am not going to remember it in a couple days. If I do that, I can look at a piece of paper and I can look at it and I can kind of picture-memorize it, and then I could spit it back out to you in a script or whatever, but I didn't learn it, okay?
If you asked me to say, "Hey, Heather, we're going to refilm this, I need you to tell me that script again," I'd be like, "I don't remember it," because I memorized it in such a quick span and then my brain dumped it. I have to write things down. In order for me to remember something, I actually have to write it down. When I listen, write it, then I remember it. I'll remember it for ever and ever.
One of the things that I think that is a good learning experience from all of these stories is that when we're teaching people stuff ... so, you know, we have really great training here, and like we put them through a week of training of this and a week of training of that, but what we don't do is continually test them to see if they retained it. Many people are like ... they can be like, "Brrrp," and you're like, "Oh, they know it, send them on their merry way," and then like two days later they're like, "I have no idea how to do this," and you're like, "I just showed you how to do it," but what we didn't do was see if they retained the information.
I think it's important to ... why Chantel said those three to four weeks are really, really an important time, it's because you can implement tasks and check-ins and testing to make sure that they retained what you taught them in week one. If they can't retain, and you've done these practices to help them retain ... so you've taught, you've showed them it, you've had them show you, you've shown them it again, you've had them show you it again, and then on the third time, they are not ... then you know, "Okay, this person just cannot retain information, and they may not be a good fit for our company."

Brian: Right. There's a difference between ... you know, when you're showing somebody or you're explaining it to them, oftentimes you'll say, "Does that make sense," and yes, it makes sense, like they understood what you're saying, but that doesn't mean they have retained it or memorized it. They have to do it again themselves.

Heather: You have to let them do it.

Chantel Ray: They have do it.

Heather: Oh, they have do it, right.

Chantel Ray: The best way that we say to train people is, like if you were going to show it, have them sit at the computer. Let them do it, and you tell them what to do. Don't show them.

Heather: Yes, and it's hard.

Chantel Ray: It is hard to do that.

Heather: It's hard to not just do it.

Chantel Ray: One of the analogies I just thought of is think about a lawn, so like there's going to be one guy who says, "Okay, here's what the lawn looks like. The rocks go here. I'm going to design the landscaping. I'm the landscaper. I'm going to design the landscaping, and I'm going to say that trees go here, this goes here, this goes here." What happens is when you're in a smaller company, the problem is that person who's doing the landscaping also needs to be able to maintain the lawn as well.
When you get to be a bigger company, you can have one person that all they do is just the landscaping, and then they just lay out the design. They do nothing else for it. They don't go get the rocks. They don't go do that. All they do is just go, "Okay, let me just draw it out." Then somebody else is the one who goes and buys the rocks and buys the material and does that, then there's someone else who puts it in.
When you're a smaller company, you need someone who can do all of that. They can do the landscaping and buy the materials and install it, and that's way harder to find, that person who can do all of those things. That's when you start getting into more of a pickle.

Heather: Who wants to do all those things.

Brian: Right.

Chantel Ray: That's right. Let's talk about, for failure real quick, you want to make sure that when you fail, you separate your identity from the work that you're doing. Can you give an example, because the truth is none of us like to fail. It doesn't matter, the best leader. No one's like, "Oh, yeah, I just really want to fail at that," even though there are so many benefits from it and you learn so much and there's so much growth in those times. How can you describe what kind of self-talk are you saying to yourself to not just you so down in the dumps that you just want to go, "Forget it"?

Heather: I would say that when I was in a role where I was recruiting and kind of coaching agents, when an agent that you felt very close to or you'd spent a lot of time with, or you felt just had loyalty to you and they were never going to leave you, when they left me, that was very hard to separate the failure from myself or the process in general. I had to learn early on, because if I would have taken every time ... basically you take it as rejection, like, "Well, they don't like me, so they left and went to a different company," and I had to learn early on that I couldn't take that personally. It wasn't me. Well, sometimes it might have been me they disliked, but I had to separate myself from that and see what could I learn from that.
Why did they leave? Was it something that I did, and if it was, I needed to admit that and change that about myself, or make sure I was more aware of it the next time I coached someone on someone or said something to someone, or was it a process that we were doing that they didn't like? Was it something that, yeah, we could change that and make them happy, or nope, that's one of our core competencies and that is just the way it is at our company, and not everybody loves everything you do? I think that you have to literally self-talk yourself through that, because I don't know many people that can just take it and just immediately separate it. Because we're all human, and you take that personal. It's just, failure's personal.

Chantel Ray: One of the things that I think is really important is that you as a leader make a commitment to you will hire, fire and promote first based on character and then off competence. In the example of the guy you were talking about ... Alex, I think, is the name ... what happened was he had told a lie. He had told some agents in the office, "Hey, I'm going to be back. I'm going to be out for a couple of hours, and I'm going to a meeting at the Laskin office," and one of the agents had planned on going to the Laskin office and didn't see him there. They had told someone else, "Hey, he told us that he was at the Laskin office and he wasn't there."
We knew that that was a bold-faced lie that he made, so when we addressed it with him, honestly we should have just fired him right then on the spot. Making a bold-faced lie to somebody in our company, that, "Unfortunately, hey, you've lost your credibility with our company. Lying is a big deal in our company. I'm sorry, unfortunately, you're fired," and we have not done that. We've just kind of been like, "Oh, we don't want to let that person go."
We are also a lot about showing grace, and I feel like a couple times we have just been like, "Grace, grace, grace, grace, grace," and so what I feel like we need to do as a company, that just say this. If we find out you're lying, we'll ... you know, we have to make that decision as a company. Do we warn you one time and then fire you, or do we just say, "If we find out you lie, this is a huge deal in our company. One time we find out that you lie, you're gone. Period, the end, out the door."

Heather: Well, I like that promote with character first, then competence, because especially in a leadership role, people are only going to follow an authentic leader. If they feel like their leader, no matter what level you are ... if you're a manager up to a high-level person ... if they don't feel like you are truthful and authentic and have a good character, anything you say to them is no longer valid. They don't respect you. They will not follow you, and you will not see a positive result from that.
I think that is so, so important, and you just have to figure out where your hard line is. Some people's hard line is one strike and you're out. Some people have three strikes and you're out, different grace rules, but I do 100% believe that once the people that you are leading find out that you're not being authentic in any way of your character, whether it's lying, cheating, stealing, whatever it might be, you have lost all credibility and you can no longer lead them.

Brian: It takes a lot to recoup that, right?

Heather: It does.

Brian: You start digging yourself a hole very quickly, and it takes a lot of work to rebuild that.

Chantel Ray: I know Dave Ramsey has a no-gossip policy, and there's is ...

Heather: "I will warn you once."

Chantel Ray: Yes. "We will warn you once, and then you're fired."

Heather: Yeah.

Chantel Ray: What we're going to do is we are going to give some examples, but not today. We are going to keep you on your toes and in our next episode, that's what we're going to talk about, is what are some of our policies that are ... is it, "No warning, boom, you're fired," or is it a, "We'll warn you once and then you're gone"? That's going to be in our next episode.

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