Case Study: Managing in the Grey

BACKGROUND:  Privately held industrial service company, run by 3 partners in a highly competitive, fragmented industry. One partner leads the company’s sales and marketing, while the other finance and the third manages the service workforce. Though the three partners collaborate on all major business decisions and work well together they each have greater expertise in and feel for individual primary responsibilities.  
THE PROBLEM:  Demand for the company’s service is particularly high between early November and early January. One of the company’s top service technicians has achieved master mechanic status, a level fewer than 20% technicians ever reach in the industry, and is recognized by customers and peers for routinely outstanding work. Customers often request him by name for their most complex and time-sensitive jobs. The mechanic recently earned a substantial pay raise and year-end bonus for his technical excellence. However, the technician is also known to be a discipline problem and will call out sick at unacceptable rates. He typically calls out sick in the morning, right before the start of a work day leaving the company little to no room for planning. These absences put the company at risk for honoring customer commitments, potentially costing them business. More often than not, he calls in sick around holidays or Monday and Friday.
THE DISCONNECT:  During this period the technician called out sick at an unusually high rate (even for him), putting enormous stress on company resources and client relationships. As a way to discipline this employee and send him a message, the company service leader decided to suspend the employee without pay for two days. He opened this discussion by telling the technician “you have let me down and I can no longer tolerate it.” The technician responded angrily, threatening to quit because competitors know he’s an excellent mechanic capable for making them as much money as he does his current employer. The technician went on to say that unless management lifted the two day suspension he was prepared to quit and go to a competitor.
THE INTERNAL DEBATE:  Recognizing the technician was serious about his threat to seek employment elsewhere, that any number of competitors would hire him instantly–likely at an even higher salary–and that the technician could likely pull some customers with him due to his exceptional skill, but also fed-up with the technician’s poor attendance record the company service executive discussed the matter with his partners. Both reacted the same way: the 3 partners would meet with this technician and immediately fire him for insubordination and irresponsibility, and have the company sales force get out ahead of the news by informing key customers of the decision and why so that they would not lose business to a competitor hiring this individual.  The finance and sales partners also wanted to hold an internal meeting to inform staff about this termination and corresponding reasons to reinforce company standards and send a message.
  • Initially, the service executive agreed with his partners and scheduled the 4 person meeting, but the more he thought about the situation and potential consequences he became less certain. Clearly, he could not run an efficient business with high rates of absenteeism but he also know it would be extremely difficult of not impossible to replace his most expert technician.  As he thought about it, the service partner believed he could hold a productive meeting with the technician but if he included his partners in the discussion he had no doubt it would end with an ugly termination.

    Managers are routinely confronted by similar situations every day. If you were this service executive what would you do and why?

  • THE SOLUTION:  Ultimately, the service executive decided to meet with the technician alone and had a very productive meeting. Rather than framing the discussion through the personal “you let me down” the service executive opened by reinforcing how skilled the technician is and how important he is to the entire company.  He then related it to the greater responsibility a true leader like this technician has to all other employees, who were all dependent on him to be someone that could be counted on. The service executive talked about his personal-professional responsibility running a business, where protecting the welfare of the 150 employees and their families depending on him to make wise business decisions is his most sacred trust; a trust that is violated if he did not enforce basic standards. Effectively, the entire team was counting on the technician to be more responsible and counting on the executive to get all team members to function as a high performing equally committed team. Put in this perspective, the technician admitted he had never really thought about it this way before, thanked the service executive for his guidance and went back to work at the company promising to be a more accountable professional .

    Successful management teams build high levels of cooperative trust because they play off of and to each other’s strengths. In this case, the service executive thanked his partners for their input and acknowledged they inspire confidence in each other because each trusts the other’s functional expertise. In this spirit, it only made sense for him to privately meet with the technician. service executive recognized his partners are most comfortable operating in the black and white world while managing a service workforce requires mastery of managing in the gray area. 

    THE LESSON:  As this case clearly demonstrates, mastering the gray is an even more critical trait the higher one goes in any organization and is necessary for making balanced business decisions.  

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