CEO Shoptalk — Not Cleared In Hot

When you are calling in CAS (close air support — might be Snakes, Warthogs, fast movers, Puff the Magic Dragon — I know, dating myself) you will tell the flyboys they are “cleared hot” meaning they can bring their special brand of firepower and turn it loose on the target and that the friendlies are out of the line of fire. You are also assuring them that if you had guns firing that the gun-target line is clear.

When you are a CEO, you can never, ever clear yourself in hot when disciplining employees.

Allow me to explain:

 1. Your job as a CEO is to create an environment, a work culture, in which top notch folks can do extraordinary work.

 2. The basic bargain between a company and its employees is this — “We will give you a place you can excel; and, you will excel. We will pay you on time; and, you will work your ass off. We will treat you fairly; you will deliver full value.”

 3. To do this, a CEO has to hire good people, read the folks into the plan (Vision, Mission, Strategy, Tactics, Objectives, Values, Culture), provide a good environment to work in, provide clear Objectives, provide Performance Appraisal based on Objective attainment, and, on rare occasions, provide discipline.

 4. Discipline is a little different, but can be part of Performance Appraisal. Discipline is unleashed when something goes wrong that should not have gone wrong.

Need an example:

Big project deadline and key worker is out late the night before, has a few tequilas, and is unable to rise to the bell the next morning.

Manager takes liberties with a subordinate — inappropriate speech, written word, actions.

Employee wastes, squanders, or diverts to personal benefit company assets or money.

OK, so you have the picture, right?

Got it, Big Red Car, what do we do?

Some basic rules, first:

 1. Understand and effectively communicate what constitutes a “firing offense” — an offense so egregious that upon discovery, investigation, and verification there is no other discipline other than termination and, perhaps, legal consequences up to and through calling in law enforcement.

I had two embezzlers — first one got me for $250,000. I confronted him. He admitted it. I marched him to the Austin Police Department. Swore out a complaint. He got no real punishment. Cop/detective laughed at me when I told him I had a fidelity bond with a $1,000 deductible.

Embezzlement is a firing offense in anybody’s shop.

 2. Had a guy who had a company car that he wrecked whilst drinking. I did not assess him as being drunk, but there were consequences. I did not terminate him.

 3. Make, communicate, and enforce your list of “firing offenses.” This is not as easy as it might seem given the implications of #MeToo and other social pressures.

Do you fire somebody for offenses outside the company on their own time? As I said, not easy.

That out of the way, here are some thoughts:

 1. Make damn sure that discipline is part of the mix in any well run company.

I like to think of discipline in the workplace as punishment/corrective action intended to re-train employees to ensure compliance with the rules and in conformance with the culture in order to further the pursuit of excellence.

 2. Discipline comes in different sizes and levels of ferocity. It also has to be consistent with your personal leadership style and authentic leadership voice.

Do not arrive at work one day thinking you are Gen George Patton. That is neither your leadership style nor your authentic leadership voice.

 3. Employees may or may not embrace discipline. Be prepared for this.

In the military when I was a combat engineer company commander at the ripe old age of 25, I disciplined a couple of sergeants.

One was for screwing up a dangerous demolition mission that could have gotten men killed — including me. One was for not meeting physical fitness requirements.

Sergeant No 1 — He had cross threaded detonating cord between two big, to-be-blown, road craters such that when he detonated the first one — Fire In The Hole — the second crater also went off.

We are talking hundreds of pounds of ammonium nitrate in shaped cratering charges that make a hole big enough that a tank cannot traverse it.

I was 50 yards from crater #2 — which was not supposed to be go BOOM just then — and received a heavy shower of meaningful size rocks on my luckily helmeted head. I also had my bell rung and hearing loss for a while — probably still do.

One rock hit me in the back of the neck requiring lots and lots of stitches. It didn’t bleed.

I reduced him, Sergeant No 1, by a grade and took half of his pay for six months. The alternative for him was a court martial that could have, potentially, bounced him out of the Army. [We used to have accountability in the military in those days. The Army was five times bigger than today, maybe more.]

SN1 completely embraced the discipline, was woefully apologetic, took full responsibility, and was professionally embarrassed. Almost killing your company commander is frowned upon.

Six months later, based on his performance, I promoted him back to sergeant and he was always a damn good leader and soldier. When I left for home, he bought me a bottle of Jack Daniels and apologized for almost killing me. I didn’t take it personal.

Sergeant No 2 — Was a 25 year sergeant first class with 3 combat tours in Vietnam and didn’t want to run with the troops in the morning with his beer gut. The First Sergeant — who I think was screwing with me — brought the man to me and stood him up.

I asked the sergeant if the First Sergeant’s complaint was true. It was, so I reprimanded the man and ordered him to run with the troops in the morning. I always, always ran and did PT with the troops, required all the officers and NCOs to do likewise. Once a week I’d lead PT which the troops used to like.

“More pushups, please, Captain BRC.”

I asked the sergeant if he wanted to say anything. He did. Sergeant told me, “Sir, I been in the latrine overseas holding my dick longer than you’ve been in my fucking Army. Platoon sergeants don’t need to run with the troops. That’s buck sergeant bullshit.” It was quite colorful at the time and made me laugh though I did not laugh in front of him. I had been in the Army 3 1/2 years at that time, so that was a lot of dick holding.

I made him run and three months later he retired from the Army. He was, otherwise, a skillful soldier (expert on floating bridges) though he did seem to have some issues with authority.

Afterward the First Sergeant — a first rate pro, but a first rate prick — told me the company’s sergeants had been betting to see whether the new VMI company commander would force the platoon sergeant to run. The book was 5% YES and 95% NO. The First Sergeant bet YES and cleaned up.

In the business world, you have to know that a ham handed disciplinary action may cost you an employee. Know that before you decide what to do.

 4. Praise in writing. Reprimand verbally. It sounds a little simplistic, but it is dogma.

When you praise somebody in writing, they will show it to their peers, spouses, and the good act will be memorialized. Whatever behaviors you reward will be duplicated.

When you reprimand somebody verbally, there is no record and, therefore, nothing for the reprimanded party to show spouses and peers and thereby create a shit storm. The memory of the conversation fades and the purpose of the discipline is met without creating a lasting scar or a tattoo.

Violate this protocol at your great peril. [Yes, you can stick a memo in the chap’s HR file.]

 5. Discipline is never, ever personal. You are excising the sin while salvaging and re-training the sinner.

 6. You must focus on the wrongdoing, explain why it is wrong, and model what should have happened. This helps keep it from being personal.

Honest to Betsy, some folks have no idea what they did wrong. Sergeant No 1 was a first rate demolition man, but he screwed up.

 7. With the benefit of all of the above, make a list of offenses and punishments — in varying degrees of ferocity — for your own reference. This may feel a little like work, because it is.

In the Army, we used to have the Uniform Code of Military Justice that spelled out the offense, the required elements of proof, and the prescribed range of punishments.

In a highly evolved company, this would be part of your HR discipline.

The list of punishments could include: verbal reprimand, not attending a company seminar/conference, ineligibility for promotion for some prescribed period of time. There is very little you can actually do to an employee other than express your disappointment in his/her performance.

The worst thing my father ever said to me was, “I’m disappointed in you.” Ouch.

Dad on maneuvers in Louisiana three weeks before WWII started. Do not disappoint Dad.

Bottom line it, Big Red Car — lunch plans

Fine, dear reader. You cannot turn you wrath loose on an individual employee regardless of how angry you become, but you can develop a refined and reasonable program of discipline. It has to be consistent with your leadership style and echo your authentic leadership voice.

You, as the CEO, have to own it and it becomes part of the company culture.

Good luck.

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

Not this.