In a previous blog post, titled “I Thought I Hired a King,” I describe writing a letter to myself about what I needed to do about a person I’d hired, who I thought would be our sales team leadership savior, and wasn’t. About what I needed to do, because he “wasn’t.” There was no blindside story there, just facts – assembled over time – that led to a decision to move on. Unfortunate maybe, but natural, even innocent, at least as these kinds of things go.
This story is as, or more, unfortunate, it’s just not as natural, or innocent – and it wasn’t on my terms, which of course makes it worse, at least for me. It was my “S” man blindside. I should have seen it coming. I knew I hadn’t hired a King with this one. I thought he was a Pawn with possibilities. Unproven. Low on stature. A little rough around the edges. Clay to mold.
He came to me near the beginning, when my company was just getting off the ground. We’d worked together earlier at another company and had both been fired. We had that in common. I was in the final planning stages for starting a company, which felt like a job, but the reality was we were still both out of work. We played tennis together one day – I don’t think I’ve played tennis since – and sealed the deal, so to speak. The “S” man was now on my team. In fact, besides my partner, Butch, the “S” man was the only player on my team. Employee # 3.
It was 1993 and “S” man was our sales team. We got along great. Together he and I helped identify prospective clients and came up with a game plan to get their business. We had a lot of fun doing this, and over the years, our company grew and thrived. The “S” man was a big part of our success.
The “S” man worked from an office he’d put together first in his apartment and, later, in a house he’d bought with his commissions. We’d talk often but we had no formal sales or time accountability plan, so he was pretty much free to do what he wanted which, by the way, was fine with me. He produced results. I was happy and proud to watch the “S” man succeed along with us, and I enjoyed his friendship as well. During our time together, the “S” man got married, moved from a small apartment to an older house with a lot of character, and generally enjoyed the luxuries that come with the six-figure income he’d earned. He and his wife were welcome party guests at our home. Our stars, and our futures, were aligned. All was good with the universe.
Until it wasn’t.
The “S” Man Reveals Himself
On a chilly morning in April 1999, I called the “S” man because I needed him to take care of something for me. He told me he was leaving the company. “Come again?” I was surprised. Shocked. What the F**k. I was also stupid. I tried to change the “S” man’s mind. To keep him. Pretend like nothing happened. I was desperate – throw some more money at him – offer him equity – keep him on board. What will it take?
I’m barfing a bit as I write this, but the truth is that I was lucky that the “S” man had his mind made up and wasn’t interested in entertaining any of my ‘moment of weakness’ offers. My desperation ran straight into his confidence and, luckily, he wasn’t budging. Turns out that the “S” man had long ago decided not just to leave, but to “team” up with another company to scheme, conspire and compete against us. He’d hid it well. I never saw it coming.
It’s not that there weren’t plenty of signs. Less frequent conversations, less eye contact when we were together, a chummy-ness with a subcontractor that was more than what was warranted. I just wasn’t looking, because looking would make it real.
The “S” man made a feeble attempt to justify his decision. He wanted a head start on his “future.” He was “afraid” he was making so much money that we would fire him. That we’d replace him with a different pawn or two. He thought I’d sell the company and he’d be out on his *ss. All BS. Turns out that while he was setting up his new ‘business arrangement,’ he was stealing from us. Records, contacts, client info. He even stole his non-compete agreement by conspiring with an acquaintance who had access to our records as the result of the discovery process related to a separate lawsuit. The “S” man had left no stone unturned.
Because I tended to hold Grudges in those days, the “S” man (and his co-conspirator) and I fought about this for several years. We sued each other and went out of our way to make each other’s lives miserable. On balance, the “S” man got the short end of the stick (the details of which are another story – it’s a karma kind of thing) – but I paid a price as well. I lost a friend. I lost some money and clients, but most of all, I lost faith and trust, and that’s been the toughest one to replace.
When I tell the “S” man story to others, they offer empathy and disdain at what a weasel he was. I’ll admit, that feels good. But it’s also BS. Remember, I knew I wasn’t hiring a king with the “S” man. I knew he was in it for “S.” That he could turn on me at any moment. That I should expect betrayal, or stupidity, at any moment. That I needed to keep him on a tight leash. And what did I do with all that knowledge? I left him alone. I sh*t the bed.
The “S” man was not the kind of guy I should have been blindsided by. He was just being who he is. I allowed myself to get whacked in the head because I did not act on my suspicions. Instead I let them ride and the “S” man being who he is, took advantage of my inattention. Lesson learned. The relief was that he was off my Good to Great bus – and before Jim Collins ever wrote about it.
Will I Ever be Out of the “S” Man Woods?
I know that I’ll have another “S” man situation in my own company and I bet you will as well. There are so many of them out there that it’s not an if, but a when. It’s Guaranteed. In fact, I’ll probably have several, and I hope you do, because the lessons they teach are uniquely and simultaneously ugly, yet poignant. “S” man situations give us the opportunity to really learn about who you want to be around, who you need to be around and what you need to do to attract and retain those who’s.
I like to think that most people are programmed from birth to trust other people. I know I am. Our desire to trust is built into the fabric of who we are and, yes, some people will take advantage of that. It’s sad, but good. We can all learn as much from the con men, the rats and the grifters as we can from the “good” people. In fact, we can learn more.
In my career, the “worst” people, my “S” men and women, have always provided me with the best lessons. It’s not that they don’t challenge and poison my fundamental belief in the human condition. They do, and that sucks. They also do something very powerful. They teach me. More than any books I’ve read or experts I’ve listened to, my own experiences with the “worst” people have taught me all I need to know about them, and (this stings a bit) about me as well.
I feel like I’ve learned to deal with “S” folks. To accept responsibility for letting them in – I do control the door, after all – while moving on when the inevitable happens, aware that the door swings both ways.
Here is my blindside, my “S” man therapy. It’s the product of years of making it too hard on myself, coupled with the acknowledgement that I can only control what I can control (which, as I get older, I realize is less and less). Here’s the advice I give myself and practice (mostly – I’m human after all):
1) Take an hour or so to pout about it, be angry about it or do whatever it takes, short of bodily injury, to release the emotion you feel. It’s cathartic and necessary.
2) Do this alone, not in front of my team or my spouse – they have their own problems and probably knew the person was a “S” man long before I did.
3) Spread the message to the team that it’s no big deal and that, while unfortunate, we will now turn this into an opportunity to find a better person. A ying to the “S” man’s yang.
4) Grab my pen and write down all the things I could have, should have and will do to prevent this from happening again, keeping in mind that it will still probably happen again. It’s about progress, not perfection.
5) Reaffirm my trust in people. The worst possible outcome is to give up on people because of an “S” man experience. I can’t allow this to happen to me, my team or my company. I am the only one who can prevent it, and I must. I need to make new deposits to my trust account that are larger than the withdrawal that any “S” man can take. Those deposits are available from the rest of the team all around me. From my family and friends. They’re widely available, and they’re free!
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