The CEO shook his head. “I am so frustrated,” he said. “Twenty years ago, every kid on the street wanted a job with us. Today, they would rather just hang out and play video games. The ones that do join us, just stay long enough to get some play money—and they’re gone. We have to attract—and keep—entry-level young men at reasonable pay rates to bend sheet metal for our trucks, or we’re just not competitive!”
His coach pondered his concerns for a moment and then asked, “What is the hourly pay rate you offer for these jobs?” His client responded, “For a guy with no sheet metal experience, we offer $10.00 per hour; for someone with some high school shop or related job experience, we pay $11.00. It’s a lot better than minimum wage. It’s not about the money; they just have no work ethic! If they have to break a sweat, they just don’t last!”
The coach wondered out loud, “Surely there must be some young people who would find these jobs attractive—and would stay with them…” Emphatically, the CEO replied, “No, I don’t think there is anyone. We just lost our last metal-worker yesterday. He just walked off the job; didn’t even give notice. He just quit!”
His coach then asked, “Is there a career path for these guys?” His client replied, “Yes, if they will educate themselves, work on a college degree in engineering or business, there are several career paths for them. I try to get them right out of high school—and if they stay with me, I will give them greater responsibilities and opportunities, and open the door for managerial or engineering positions in the future. However, I wouldn’t want any of the kids I see today. They’re lazy and unmotivated.”
Our coach then asked what proved to be the most important question: “If you could find the right candidates for your metal working jobs, where would they be?” The CEO’s response was a knee-jerk reaction: “They don’t exist today! Kids with a work ethic aren’t being raised in today’s families. What I need are farm boys, guys who have to get up in the dark to milk the cows, who grow up shoveling manure and baling hay.”
The follow-up question by the coach zeroed in on a solution: “So, can you find farm boys today?” The CEO thought a moment. “Well, they aren’t here in the city, but I guess there are farm boys in the rural areas of our state. I just don’t think we could attract them.”
“Might it make sense to check in with the high schools in the rural areas? You could ask their counselors where these young people go after graduation. I wonder if many of them can’t wait to get off the farm and into the city—and to pursue college there.” The CEO expressed a bit of cynicism, but admitted that it was worth checking into.
Over the next few months, contact was made with several rural high schools. Sure enough, they identified a number of young men who expressed interest in the metal-working job Additionally, the CEO strengthened the attractiveness of job offers by helping the best candidates find housing near the company. He also decided to formalize the connection between these entry-level jobs and the career path to managerial and engineering positons by offering scholarship dollars to those who were willing to firm up their commitment to stay with the company.
Today, the company’s metal-working jobs are almost always filled; in fact, they are in demand. Farm boys have “primed the pump,” but others who are interested in the career opportunities and scholarship program now seek these opportunities. Several of those who began bending metal years ago now occupy key engineering and management positions with the company. Others have pursued professional careers with other companies, giving credit to the business that gave them their start.
The CEO admitted that he was caught in a terrible dilemma. In implementing a new strategic initiative three months ago, his executive team seemed fully committed. However, more recently his Chief Technology Officer had demonstrated “a complete lack of support” for the new strategy.
Given the major investment of time, money, and resources to the project, the CEO called the CTO in to address his concerns and attitudes. The CTO indicated that he could support the initiative, but he refused to allow the new project to “take priority” over his own pet projects. His boss let him know that this wouldn’t work—and that his efforts had to be refocused on the new initiative. He refused. At that point, the CEO made it clear that the CTO’s job was at risk; that if he didn’t make the new strategy priority #1, he would be fired. The CTO’s response: “You can’t afford to fire me. This company would die without me.”
Now sitting with his CEObuilder coach, he confessed his fear that neither the ongoing operation nor the new strategy could succeed without the CTO. “How do I deal with this?” he asked.
Being well aware of the new initiative, his coach asked, “Can the new project succeed if relegated to the CTO’s lower priority?” His client responded emphatically, “No!”
“Did the CTO tell you why he feels so strongly about this?”
“His position is that his other projects are more important—and can’t be postponed.”
“Have you discussed this with your COO and CFO?”
“Yes, and they have discussed it with him. His response was the same: he will do what he wants.”
“What do they recommend?”
“Like myself, they fear losing him, but they also recognize that everyone knows about this showdown now, and they’re all waiting to see what I will do.”
“If you were to fire him, how will you cover his responsibilities?”
“Well, our IT staff is strong, but he is the brains of the organization. I think we would have to seek expertise outside the company.”
“How long would it take you to put together a contingency plan to deal with his departure—and who would be on the team to pit that plan together?”
The remainder of the coaching session focused on the development of the contingency plan. Members of the executive team were summoned to participate—and that evening key members of the IT staff met with the CEO. A strong IT services firm was immediately engaged—and the following day the CTO was terminated.
The next 60 days were challenging. Staff members from the IT department were initially very worried that they would, indeed, fail on not just the new initiative, but on all IT projects. However, after a couple of weeks, they began to realize that the former CTO had kept them from contributing and fully developing in their roles. The new situation stretched them, but they gradually recognized that they were capable of fulfilling the IT needs of the company. Today, the new CTO has emerged from that team.
When the CEObuilder coach entered the room, he could tell his CEO client was agitated. After the customary greetings, he asked, “So…how is business?”
“Lousy!” was the reply. “We’re not hitting our numbers, and it’s clear that no one around here really cares. Everyone is letting me down! I’ve been here in my office since 6am today—and I’ve made a list of everyone who has failed to do their job.” He motioned the coach to his whiteboard and, sure enough, all 23 of his employees’ names appeared, along with several suppliers. In looking over the list, the coach did a double-take; his name was the last on the list.
While the CEO continued to vent for several minutes, his coach took notes. He recognized that the CEO’s rant was a normal reaction of someone under a great deal of stress, so he said nothing at first. There was no point in being defensive, but he also knew that to help the CEO through this crisis, he couldn’t let the coaching session remain a “blame game.” When the CEO finally ran out of steam, he looked his coach in the eye and demanded, “Well, what are you going to do?”
Our coach stared back at his client for a moment, and then asked, “Would you go for a walk with me?” The CEO replied, “I don’t see the point…” His coach said, “If you will come with me, I think I can help you.”
With that, the coach walked out of the office and down the hall, taking a right-hand turn into the Men’s Room. He motioned the CEO to follow him, which he did, with a bit of hesitation. The CEO asked, with a great deal of exasperation, “What are we doing here?”
At this point, both men were standing in front of the large mirror over the restroom sinks. Our coach then said, “On your whiteboard, I noticed that you had forgotten one person who has let you down. He is looking at you in the mirror.”
There was a long pause, before the CEO smiled and said, “You know, I could fire you for that.” Our coach smiled back and replied, “Oh, I thought I was fired.”
The CEO shook his head. “Of course not,” he said, “I just need help!”
At that point, our coach said, “That I can do, but we have to get past the blaming phase, and start delving into the root causes of your current situation. Why don’t you and I spend some time on that—and then when we feel like we’re heading the right direction, bring in your key executives and test our assumptions. I think we will be able to come up with an action plan to get things back on track.”
A plan was formed through the facilitation of the coach and the engagement of the CEO’s team that resulted in clarity regarding the problems faced and overcoming the root causes of those problems. This brought about improved profitability, and more importantly, restored the faith of the CEO in all those who were “letting him down!”