A tale of two terminations

By Scott Westerman
Scott’s First Leadership Maxim – “Any unresolved team member issue becomes a leadership issue.”

I vividly remember the first time I fired somebody .

It was 1982 and I was managing a small cable operation in Roseville. I had to discharge a technician because he was -too- gung ho. He cared so much about the company that he would alienate customers again and again, doing what he thought was protecting our interests. We went over the issue many times and I tried everything in my scant leadership toolbox to help him, but word was starting to get to my boss that this tech had to go. And I knew if I didn’t fire him, my boss would fire me.

The night before, I went into my daughter Shelby’s bedroom. She was 2 at the time. The last thing I did each evening before bed was ponder how incredibly beautiful she was. In these moments, I fully felt the responsibility I now had for a family. My days as a footloose DJ were long gone and each decision I made mattered to others beyond myself.

I knew that my first duty was to make sure that the people I loved had the best possible life. Letting a guy I genuinely liked continue to screw up despite my best efforts was not in Shelby’s best interest. Somehow, I rationalized that if it was just about my life alone, it didn’t seem as important to take action.

As I stood there in meditation over this precious little spirit, I began to realize that it was not in Jim’s best effort to let him continue on with these self defeating behaviors. At some point, my recalcitrant technician’s dad probably looked over his bed and had the same goal I had for Shelby. He deserved the best possible life. And that meant learning the lesson, even if it meant losing his job.

Shelby rolled over and spit out her pacifier. That was the sign that she was heavy into her sleep and all was right in her world.

I was at peace. Slept like my baby daughter and called the tech in the next morning for the uncomfortable conversation.

He was stunned, begged me to keep him on. But I carefully went over the steps that had occurred to bring us to this moment, gently reminding him of the help we had offered, but sticking to my guns.

He left.

We didn’t speak for about a month, but he found a new gig instantly. He was a good worker and it was the dawn of Cable TV’s incredible growth so there were lots of opportunities. I think he finally learned from it all because he told me that he held no ill will toward me or the company. He eventually became a respected leader in his own right.

Fast forward to 2004. I had just left our home in Jacksonville, Florida to take on a turn-around gig in the Midwest. Colleen, as always, stayed behind to sell the house. Our kids were grown and, since they lived in the area, she had the added benefit of being able to party regularly with our now-adult daughter.

At a bar on the Florida Inter Coastal Waterway, she and Shelby recognized one of my former Jacksonville, team members. There were many (I had over 900 on my team at it’s peak) and most knew her better than she knew them. She approached the guy and said, “Hi, I’m Colleen Westerman, Scott’s wife! Thought you’d be interested to know that Scott is off to Illinois to get back into the cable business!”

He turned a cold eye toward her and said, “Why would I give a damn what happened to Scott Westerman.”

She mumbled something and walked back to join Shelby at the bar.

About 20 minutes later, the guy approached her. Colleen wasn’t worried. Even though she may appear soft and feminine, both she and Shelby are martial arts trained and could have taken him… and the bouncers apart if the situation dictated.

“I came over to apologize,” the guy told her. “You see, your husband fired me after 15 years on the job. I should not have taken it out on you.”

When she recounted the incident, I remembered the guy, but could not remember firing him.

I probably didn’t. It was his boss, who reported to me, who did the actual deed. And it had happened five years prior, before I left the cable company to do my entrepreneurial thing. This guy was obviously still angry about it.

“I know you wouldn’t have fired him without giving him every chance to succeed,” she told me on the phone that night.”

It was well known among my many bosses that I gave everybody the benefit of the doubt.. sometimes, in their combined view, too often.

She laughed. “I guess he still hasn’t figured out Scott’s Second Leadership Maxim..”

I smiled as we both said it together.

“Lessons are repeated until learned.”