You Could Fire The Person, But Should You?

This story occurred when I was General Manager of a luxury hotel.

It was Christmas season. Our hotel was elegantly decorated within an inch of its life. We had roaring fireplaces filling the atmosphere with warmth and that wonderful aroma you can only get from burning real wood. We had live Christmas music. Every function room was hosting a holiday party. Guests were dressed to the nines – tuxedos, evening gowns, minks and shminks. If you’re an hotelier, evenings like this are quite memorable.

One party, however, experienced a serious misfortune. Five mink coats were stolen from our coat check closet. Two of these coats were irreplaceable family heirlooms. Our investigation revealed that James, one of our banquet captains, pulled the coat check person from her post to help pour coffee for about 15 minutes. During that brief window of time, the coats were stolen. The thieves probably strolled right out the front door with them. On this evening no observer would have given it a second thought.

James’ poor judgment cost our hotel many thousands of dollars and damaged our brand. I could have fired him, and I was getting pressure from the corporate office to do just that. The HR people were concerned about consistency and precedent. PR and Branding people felt that firing him rapidly would send a positive message about the brand. Others wanted him fired just because they were pissed off.

I didn’t fire him. James was one of the most talented banquet captains I ever had the pleasure to work with. Leadership, people skills, professional knowledge, bearing – he had it all. He had worked for our hotel for many years. Over those years numerous guests told us they booked business with us because they knew James would take care of them with excellence. Yes, this was egregious, but James had never done anything like this before.

I had a rather stern discussion with James, who felt terrible and fully expected to be fired. I put a written warning in his file, and explained why I was not inclined to fire him when I balanced his overall value to the hotel against this one screw up. Tears surfaced. By the end of the conversation, I had re-hired him emotionally.

Decisions have consequences. Not firing him did in fact create some risks associated with consistency of discipline. In addition, many people felt that he needed to be held accountable. They disagreed quite vigorously with my decision, as many readers will, I’m sure. On the other hand, I retained a very valuable employee, I deepened his loyalty, and I demonstrated to all employees how they would be treated in a similar situation. They got a message about my loyalty. They knew I had their back.

I have several of these stories. One of them is about when my former boss. Phil Lombardi, didn’t accept my resignation for a screw up that wasted a lot of money, and caused him serious loss of face. That’s probably why I take this point of view. I learned and grew from that experience.

Sometimes, firing someone for egregiously poor judgment is the right thing to do. But I think there are too many times when a leader fires someone because it’s the easy way out. The extreme version of this is called “scapegoating”.

Do any of us think we go through life without occasionally exercising poor judgment, and sometimes very poor judgment? What I’m saying here is that some of these occasions present opportunities for learning and growth. I encourage you, as a leader, to look for them.

Thanks for reading. As always I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

Do You Individualize Your Coaching Practices?

Many leaders used to do the job of the people they’re coaching. And those leaders often were very successful in that job, and they’ve developed the belief that they know THE way to achieve success. Many sales training programs are based on this sort of belief. The limitation of this belief is that trainer or coach is unaware of her own talent. It doesn’t occur to her that others might not be capable of demonstrating the behaviors she’s recommending.

If you’re coaching someone, in any position, remember this: just because you were (or are) capable of doing something, that doesn’t mean that the person you’re coaching possesses those same capabilities. Of course there are some behaviors you can teach. But leaders routinely overestimate their ability to help others demonstrate behaviors that are not aligned with their aptitudes or character traits. Here are some examples. Maybe you’re comfortable with confrontation and he (the coachee) simply is not. Maybe you’re extroverted and he’s introverted. Maybe you have an eye for detail and he simply doesn’t. Or maybe you’re remarkably well organized and he’s not.

Great coaches begin by understanding the individual strengths of each person, and they implement the following principle, which is attributed to Peter Drucker: Build the strengths and make the weaknesses irrelevant.

Don’t worry so much about how you did it. Each person creates success by using his or her unique configuration of strengths. As a coach, you must understand that there are many paths to success. If you want to be a great coach, you must grow beyond helping others understand how you achieved success. You must help them figure out how they are going to achieve success.

Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

Are You Surrounding Yourself With The Right People?

Too often in my career I’ve seen managers struggle because they don’t surround themselves with the right people. It’s the goal of this post to stimulate your thinking on this topic. Who are the right people?

I’m sure you’ve heard the advice, “You shouldn’t hire people like yourself.” That sounds like wisdom at a cocktail party, but it’s so oversimplified it’s of no use. Don’t listen to it. You should hire people who are like you in certain ways.

We’re talking about the issue of fit. Direct reports who are the best natural fit for you will definitely be like you in certain ways. One of my clients, a hotel general manager, had an intense drive for continuous improvement. He was never satisfied. If his direct reports didn’t share this drive, they were not a good fit for his style.

Difficulties arise when managers mistakenly look for things that shouldn’t matter. Is the person an enthusiastic sports fan? Are they in my generation? Are they a morning person? Were they in a sorority? In most cases, you should be completely unconcerned whether someone is like you in these respects.

Here are some things to consider when thinking about who’s right for you.

  • What kind of person thrives under your unique leadership style?
  • What weaknesses/deficiencies can you just not tolerate?
  • How will this person fit with your team?
  • Is this someone you’re willing to trust?
  • Would you look forward to working with this person every day?
  • What strengths do they bring that compliment your strengths?

The last item, complimentary strengths, is the area in which you should very intentionally seek people who are not like you. This is how you produce synergy.

If you can answer the questions listed above, you can determine whether someone is the right person to report to you, and you can quit worrying about the degree to which they’re like you or not like you.

Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

Are You Known For Your Ethics And Integrity?

Very early in my career, a senior leader said, “Larry, as you progress through your career, you’ll bring with you your experience and your lessons learned. But the most important thing you’ll bring is your reputation for honesty and integrity.” Those words have served me well.

Your reputation is built by your decisions and actions as you move through life. Doing the right thing is easy when it’s convenient and painless. What do you do when “the right thing” is not at all clear? What do you do when it’s inconvenient and likely to cause you some pain? What do you do when you’ve done something wrong?

In this post my goal is to stimulate your thinking about this supremely important topic.

Walk your talk.

Who you are speaks more loudly than what you say. Failure to walk your talk will earn you a well-deserved reputation for hypocrisy. Think about politicians who forcefully espouse family values while committing adultery. Disgusting. Who wants to follow a hypocrite?

Avoid even the appearance of impropriety.

A senior partner taught me this when I was practicing law. It’s not enough to know you’re doing the right thing. You must be aware of how others might see it. The appearance of impropriety often causes huge damage even if one’s innocence is later established. At the very least it tarnishes your reputation. If something will look wrong even though it’s not, don’t do it. If you’re called upon to explain why you’ve done something, you’ve already made a mistake.

Operate with transparency

As my friend and colleague Bill Kerrey says, “Sunshine disinfects.” People don’t trust mysteries. Transparency is the best way to avoid the appearance of impropriety.

Don’t do something just because you can get away with it.

Temptation is all around us. In many cases, a leader can do things that are not right because nobody has the power to hold him accountable. I knew a company president who forbade HR to record her vacation time. Here’s the thing. Once you see that you should ask, “What else is she getting away with?” It’s a 100% certainty this is not the only case of this sort. She’s doing it elsewhere.

And as a practical matter, others will emulate that behavior. You’ll have a culture where everyone will see what they can get away with. No ethics, no integrity, no honor, no trust. Don’t do this and don’t condone it.

Encourage your employees to discuss the question, “What’s the right thing to do in this situation?”

It’s not always clear what the right thing is. The world does not fit neatly into the categories we’ve created. Vigorous, candid discussion is healthy. And well-meaning, intelligent people can disagree. Ultimately, however, we must act. Not everyone will agree with the leader’s point of view. When you have to make these types of decisions ask yourself, “Am I comfortable explaining this decision in a public forum?” If not, find a different course of action.

Admit your mistakes, apologize and do your best to make things right.

Too many leaders think it’s a sign of weakness to admit a mistake. On the contrary, it’s a sign of strength. Who in their right mind believes their leader is incapable of error? Leaders who don’t admit mistakes undermine their credibility.

Adhere to your principles even when it’s difficult, costly and painful.

We have shining examples of this. To name just a few: Mohandas Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Socrates, Nelson Mandela, the demonstrators in Tienanmen Square, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the protesters who crossed the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, and Rosa Parks. I’m sure you can add to this list. These are the kinds of leaders who inspire people to action. When it comes to ethics and integrity, we’d all do well to emulate their example.

Thanks to my friend and colleague Kelly Moguel for suggesting this topic.

And thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

Will talent management practices create morale issues for employees who are not identified as talented?

This very intriguing question was posted by ANOOPA NARAYANAN, PhD scholar at Cochin University of Science and Technology. I think the answer is, “Yes.” Some talent management practices will create morale issues for some employees. My question is: What should we do about it? As usual, I don’t believe I have THE answer, but here are my thoughts.

I’m going to assume that Ms. Narayanan is referring to a situation in which a select group of employees has been identified as “high potential”, and are enrolled in a program designed to develop future leaders for the organization. Undoubtedly, there is a group of employees who wanted to be selected for that program but were not. In the moment, they’re going to be disappointed, and their morale will suffer.

First, I encourage us all to avoid the thinking (and the statements) that these employees are not talented. I use the word “talent” as a synonym for “aptitude” or “giftedness”. To have a talent for something is to have the potential for excellence in that thing. Often, we label someone as “not talented” because they are in the wrong fit for the gifts they’ve been given. Different careers require different aptitudes. So someone might be enrolled in a culinary arts program, but he or she lacks the aptitude to become a chef. Teachers in the program might say that person is not talented, but really they should say that person is not a talented culinarian. Maybe he has plenty of gifts, but they align with a different career.

I know an individual whose father insisted that he become an executive in the family business. But unfortunately leadership was not his talent. This person was a very talented photographer who was not allowed to pursue that as a career. I assure you, his morale was not good. That’s what happens when you put someone in a job that’s not a good fit.

Earlier in my career I had a top sales rep who wanted to become a sales manager. Upon considering him for that role, we concluded that his talent was selling, not managing people. So we declined the promotion.

Let’s assume we were correct about his lack of potential to be a good manager. What would be the consequences of putting him in that role? First, if he’s not a good manager, the morale of his direct reports will suffer. The performance of his team will suffer. He’ll be under constant stress trying to perform with excellence in a role for which he is not a good fit. That kind of stress contributes to serious health problems and burn out.

His morale did suffer, by the way, when he didn’t get the sales manager job. I tried to retain him, but he found a sales manager job with another organization. I still sleep well about that because giving him the job would have had worse consequences for our organization and for him.

We can mitigate some morale issues if we understand each employee’s talent and ask, “What’s the best fit for someone with those gifts?” Once we understand someone’s talent we have a better chance of putting her in a role where she spends the majority of her time doing things she’s good at and enjoys. When we can put someone in a job that’s the right fit, we’ve created a platform where she can add the most value to the organization, and where she can thrive and grow.

We must provide growth opportunities that go beyond traditional hierarchical promotions. In academia, for instance, individuals can continue to earn degrees that bring them increased status and respect, even though they don’t supervise anyone. Many trades and professions provide similar possibilities for people. We’d all be well served to create additional growth possibilities for our employees so that hierarchical promotions are not their only option.
If we’ve properly identified high potential employees, it makes sense to invest in their growth and development. We have to accept that this will cause some morale problems for those who were not selected. Some might leave. That’s a cost of the program.

Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

10 Things To Avoid When You’re Losing

During my career, I’ve experienced several situations in which my team did not achieve it’s goals. I’ve been in more than one situation where my very best effort wasn’t good enough. It sucks. Believe me, I know it sucks. It’s pain life experience, and it’s your responsibility as a leader to help your people extract the full value from it. Adversity often brings to light strengths that might otherwise go unrealized. Going through tough times together can deepen relationships, strengthen bonds and build esprit de corps. As a leader it’s your responsibility to help people grow through this experience. Here are some do’s and don’ts:


  • Get discouraged.
  • Give up or tolerate others giving up.
  • Fail give and demand that others give their very best effort.
  • Start to doubt your people.
  • Talk negatively about your people.
  • Make excuses.
  • Blame/Scapegoat others.
  • Tolerate negativity.
  • Continue to execute strategies that aren’t working.
  • Strive to be a good loser.


  • Find successes to celebrate.
  • Review your wins to identify what you can replicate into the future.
  • Show that you’re upset, and tolerate others who do so.
  • Continue to strive to see how much of the gap you can close.
  • Leave it all on the field. No woulda, shoulda, coulda. If you have to go down, go down in flames.
  • Seize this opportunity to show yourselves and others what you’re made of.
  • Challenge your team to answer this question: “What should we do differently to create more wins?”
  • Ask your boss for ideas and suggestions. And implement them.

Every life experience presents the opportunity for growth. If you lose and you don’t grow that would truly be a shame. Don’t let your people down. Thanks for reading. As always, I welcome your thoughts. Larry Sternberg

How Do You Create An Amazing Workplace?

Recently I was a guest on a Podcast hosted by Chris McNeill.  To hear this interview, click here:

To learn more from Chris, click here:

Big thanks to Chris for inviting me to share my thoughts. As always, I’d love to hear yours.

Larry Sternberg