The Character Traits and Skills of the Successful CEO — Discipline

Big Red Car here.  I guess you’re getting tired of hearing about the warm, sunny weather here in the ATX.  It is July, ya’ll, and it is typical for these times.  Today will be another beautiful day in paradise.  On Earth as it is in Texas!

So The Boss is talking to one of his CEOs and the CEO says:  “Hey, I’ve got a situation which calls for a bit of discipline.  Any advice?”

Every CEO will find themselves in this situation sooner or later.  Don’t feel like life has singled you out for special treatment.  As a CEO, you will have to discipline folks, your entire company sometimes and yourself.  Today we will discuss how to discipline a team member.

The Situation — not  that guy on The Jersey Shore

So the CEO has a situation wherein one of his better folks has colored outside the lines a bit and has qualitatively violated an important company policy.  It does not really matter which one.

In viewing the lines and crayon marks, nobody doubts what happened.  A good person wielding a big crayon crossed an important line.  All involved agree that an important company policy was violated.

The CEO’s dilemma is — WTF, now what do I do?

The principle of the thing

Before attacking the notion of discipline let’s discuss a couple of principles:

1.  Praise in writing — always praise your folks in writing and thereby create a trophy that reinforces great behavior and is able to be shared with others.  When done well this is the thing of legend around the campfire and has a long, long, long shelf life.  This is why the military — which is prepared to send soldiers to their death, literally — has a system of awards for valor and service.

2.  Reprimand verbally — in much the same spirit that praise becomes a trophy, a written reprimand becomes a black mark with equal shelf life.  No big red “A”s tattooed on your folks’ foreheads.  We will chat about how to reprimand someone in just a second.  By doing it verbally, you destroy the long term memory of the transgression and it too becomes a bit of campfire lore but known only to the participants.

As the edges become a bit rounded, you will laugh about it.

Handled correctly this is an opportunity for a CEO to demonstrate fairness, perspective and empathy.

3.  Know where this is all going — if you are reprimanding someone and you think there is a meaningful probability that the behavior will not be corrected and that a future repetition may require sterner action, consider this at the time of the reprimand and take appropriate action then.  Do not go back and try to paper something up after the fact.  Do it now.

Reprimand

In formulating your plan to verbally reprimand a team member, organize your thoughts thusly:

1.  Identify all of the participants — there may be more than one.  If there are more than one, then the Big Red Car counsels dealing with each one separately in order not to allow a cabal to be created.  [WTF is a cabal, Big Red Car?  Uhhh, the Big Red Car says — Google it, sweetheart.]

2.  State the policy that was violated, the nature of the violation and the reference, if any.  Sometimes, this is just the failure to apply good sense to a situation.  Sometimes this is so specific as to be beyond any possible misunderstanding.

3.  Identify the who, when, where, why and how of the transgression.

4.  State clearly what was done wrong.

5.  State what should have happened — model the correct behavior.

6.  Obtain team member buy in or acknowledgement — this is often a tough one, so be prepared for an argument.

7.  Obtain agreement that it will not happen again.  A bit of contrition would also be nice.

8.  Agree on the nature of the documentation, if any; and,

9.  Use this as an opportunity to discuss the team member’s relationship with the company.

Always end the conversation on a positive note, so find something positive to end with.

Now you are ready to deliver the reprimand.  You have planned what you are going to say in a logical manner.

You should practice a few times — reprimand your Labrador if you must.  A Lab is always up to something that requires a good reprimand.

Do not practice on a Shih Tzu.  The Shih Tzu is smarter than you and you will undoubtedly end up taking the Shih Tzu out for a steak.  [Big Red Car, really?  Yes the average Shih Tzu is smarter than the average CEO — just  joshing, ya’ll.]

Delivery

Deliver the well rehearsed reprimand in a calm and precise manner.

No, Old Sport, do not read from a set of talking points.  Be ready and if you must refer to a set of notes, do so but no Beyonce lip syncing for you.  You are a big time CEO and big time CEOs do not lip sync.  Trust me on this one.

If the matter is particularly serious, have a witness in the room at the time of delivery.  This can be your co-founder, the CFO, the HR person depending upon your level of organization and staffing.  Do not let the witness participate in the reprimand as it may feel like you are ganging up on the team member and this will make it harder to get the job done.

End the discussion on a positive note:  “While this has been a serious transgression of our policies, Joe, know that you are a valued member of the team and I am still expecting great things from you.”

Documentation

You must document each and every reprimand you ever deliver.  This may be as simple as putting your notes from the conversation in the personnel file of the reprimandee [Hey, Big Red Car, I think you just invented a new word in the English language — the freakin’ “reprimandee”, really, Big Red Car?  Haha.]

You may want to write a memorandum to the same personnel file.

You may have to put a comment in the person’s next Performance Appraisal.  Again, I caution you to be careful not to create a “trophy” or Scarlet Letter which generates long term angst.  Be smart here.  It may impact compensation so be prepared to discuss it, but do not create a tattoo which will not wash away with cold water and cheap soap.  This is the kind of stuff that makes employment lawyers nuts.

After some specific period of time, if you are comfortable, destroy the records of the reprimand.  Nothing is permanent nor should it be.  Reprimand, forgive, forget and move on.

If you are experiencing repetitive discipline challenges with a single employee — you may need this documentation to fire someone “for cause”.  The Boss does not recommend firing folks “for cause” even when that is the intellectual basis for the firing.  It is fraught with peril and legal trouble.  Pay a bit of severance and fire someone under the “at will” provisions of state law.  Pro tip.

Anecdote

A reprimand is a funny thing.  As an Army officer, The Boss got a Letter of Admonishment because some combat engineers he commanded in a combat engineer company had beat the snot out of some MPs on pay day.  The combat engineers and the MPs wore the same blood red scarves on pay day when wearing their greens.

On pay day, combat units run a bit amok.  This is what soldiering is all about — running amok on pay day.  Bit of drinking — well, a whole lot of drinking really — bit of whoring when it is available and then the MPs often show up.  The combat engineers liked to “confiscate” the MPs scarves saying they were not earned by combat service.  The MPs would contest this mightily and a fight would break out.

The MPs had sticks and they had back up.  The combat engineers often won the first phase of the skirmish but eventually the MPs would win and throw the combat engineers into the stockade where the MPs who ran the stockade would beat the crap out of the combat engineers.

The MPs would turn fire hoses on the combat engineers in their cells and then wack them with their batons on the shoulder, elbow, wrist, knee or ankle.  Places where you could inflict a lot of pain but no visible damage — no big bruises.  Those sadistic MPs were very clever about this.

So, The Boss gets stood up in front of an Infantry Colonel who had gotten a call from the Commanding General — who interestingly enough The Boss used to go fishing with regularly — about some combat engineers who had beaten the crap out of some MPs and had necessitated the dispatch of gobs of MPs to subdue them.

There were about 25 drunk combat engineers who had stood off about six times as many MPs.

The Letter of Admonishment was forthcoming very quickly after a world class ass chewing delivered by the Colonel who later commanded all US Special Ops and was a great leader.  Boy, could he give an ass chewing.  At one point in the ass chewing, The Boss smiled in appreciation of the world class quality of the ass chewing.  [Pro tip:  Do NOT smile when getting an ass chewing from an Infantry Colonel.]

As the investigation unfolded it turned out that the MPs had been laying in wait and the combat engineers, not innocent chaps at all, had been set up.  Still the combat engineers acquitted themselves well.

Well the Colonel finally concluded that maybe the combat engineers had not been so manifestly wicked after all and when he learned how the folks in the stockade had abused them, well, he was livid.  The tide began to turn.  The Major in charge of the stockade was relieved.

But by this time that damn Letter of Admonition was already in The Boss’s file.

So, nobody could figure out how to remove a Letter of Admonition from an Army 201 file.  The Colonel wrote another letter explaining it all and requesting the removal of his original letter.  No dice.  But the second letter stayed also.

When The Boss went to a promotion board in front of a bunch of Combat Engineer Colonels the letters were read carefully and the Colonels wanted to know the story.  They were particularly interested in how a handful of combat engineers were able to hold off so many MPs.  The discussion turned to the physical conditioning of the combat engineers, their hand to hand combat training and the entire discussion turned in a positive direction for The Boss.

There were a lot of suppressed smiles.  The Boss got promoted.

So, big time CEO, the application of a bit of discipline in your company is an important thing and your ability to do this effectively is an essential skill you must master.

But, hey, what the Hell do I know really?  I’m just a Big Red Car.