I had to terminate an employee recently. Having been in a management or ownership position for over 20 years, this is not the first time I have had to do this. That doesn’t mean it’s any easier.
It really doesn’t matter whether the person committed some major error, was under-performing in their position or was just in a position that was no longer justified or budgeted for – it is still a very difficult thing to do. You never can tell how the news is going to affect the person. You just know it will impact them. As much as I try to anticipate how the person is going to react, I am more often surprised by the reaction and ensuing discussion.
This most recent one was no different. This happened to be a person who reported directly to me, was in a more senior position and was someone I worked closely with for five years. We also had a number of interests in common outside the work place.
As with every one of these I’ve had to do over the years, I always end up second-guessing myself right up to the point when I have to walk into their office. These decisions haunt me for weeks before and usually for weeks afterward. This is someone’s livelihood we are talking about. It shouldn’t be dealt with lightly.
This one, however, actually was different. Different from the perspective of how the person reacted. The first couple minutes were tough, and usually I try to keep these conversations relatively brief and to the point. But this one developed into a longer conversation about his life’s real passions, about what he was going to be able to do now, about some of the things he had always wanted to do and now would have the opportunity to pursue.
The more we talked, the more he seemed to become excited about the future, and what he could now consider doing. He was free to go after what he really wanted to do. This sounds almost insane, but at one point I found myself almost envious of his excitement about chasing his dream of doing something incredibly significant.
We parted ways on a positive note and have spoken several times since then. I am very excited to see where his passion takes him. That’s not usually how these things end.
Several years ago we had to let another management team member go. In that case, he had a son the same age as mine, and we had made several trips with our boys to the Indianapolis 500, had been to a number of NHRA drag races and hung out at his farm while the boys roamed the woods. Unfortunately, I have not seen him since the day we let him go.
The question I had coming out of that situation still weighs on me: Exactly how close of a friend can you become with an employee? It doesn’t matter what we do outside of the business or how a friendship develops. There is always that “owner” stamp on my forehead. And sometime in the future I may have to make the tough decision that interferes with a personal relationship for the good of the business.
This is not just an owner issue. Anyone in a management position is faced with the same challenge – how close to become to the team you are leading. I want to build a team that works phenomenally well together, that has each other’s backs, that shares the same passion for success. But as the leader of that team, I will never be "one of the guys."
It really is a delicate balance – sharing the vision for where you want the team to go, encouraging the camaraderie among the individuals, spending one-on-one time with people to help them develop into strong contributors, yet recognizing that there is a different relationship between you and each of them.
Most of the time it is tremendously rewarding. Once in a while, it is terribly difficult. See you on the show floor.
Jim Obermeyer has been in the tradeshow industry 30 years, both as a corporate tradeshow manager and exhibit house executive. He is a partner in the tradeshow and event-marketing-firm Reveal. He can be reached at