not cut the mustard

Tony doesn't cut the mustard

This story is based on true events experienced by various leaders that we have worked with.

I started with this new company a few months ago as a project director. It’s a great company and I love the job. I have a good team, but I noticed very early on that Tony, one of my department heads, was not cutting the mustard. I tell you, I groaned as soon as I realised. I checked around with other directors and found out that my predecessor had also had a problem with Tony. It seemed like he used to be pretty good at his job, but that was a long time ago. 

I hate performance management conversations. If I’m honest, in the past I’ve just ignored the situation. I would hope that the person would either realise and change their ways or leave of their own accord. I know, that never happens. It would go on for weeks and months and it would play on my mind the whole time.  

This time was different. I didn’t give it a lot of thought, but I started to jot down some of the things I’d been noticing. The more I noticed, the more I realised he was a square peg in a round hole. It was clear to me that he couldn’t do the job nor was he enjoying it. I felt for the guy. It must be awful doing a job you hate, that you’re not very good at.  

Out of character for me, I decided to take the bull by the horns and have a frank conversation with him. I agreed a meeting date with him. I had all my facts written down and I was sure about the company’s disciplinary process. I decided to take him to a local hotel where I know the reception area is quiet and they serve good coffee.  

The night before I didn’t sleep a wink. I rehearsed what I was going to say over and over in my mind. I planned to start by reading him the riot act, then set out all the ways in which he had not been performing. I would reiterate his KPIs, make it clear there was a problem, then demand that he tell me what he was going to do about it. That had worked in the past. Kind of. 

But there was something else that kept me awake, too. I worried about whether I was going to have to sack him. I mean, I’m human, I’m not without caring. This was his livelihood and he had a family to look after. But I also knew he wasn’t doing the job the company was paying him for, and that couldn’t continue. 

It was what felt right in the moment 

We were sitting in the hotel lobby and it was only 30 minutes into the conversation. It hadn’t panned out how I thought it would. 

“So, what do you think we should do?’ I asked.  

The hotel lobby was quiet, as I had expected. We were sitting in the far corner of the room out of earshot of any passers-by. The light was subdued in our corner of the hotel, in stark contrast to the bright lights of the main lobby area. To other guests we would have looked like two businessmen in sharp suits, trying to have a private conversation. I could smell the fresh coffee as it wafted from the cups on the table in front of us. It was as good as I remembered. Even though the hotel wasn’t busy, it had taken quite a while for the waitress to bring them over. The chairs were functional and comfortable enough. A ring pull was on the floor hidden by the leg of Tony’s chair. It was only when I changed position that I could see what it was. 

I’d asked him how he thought he was doing, then had sat back and listened. It wasn’t what I’d planned, but it was what had felt right in the moment. At first, he tried to say that all was well, but as I waited in silence the cracks started to appear. He started owning up to the things that I’d got on my list.   

I had been worried Tony was going to argue with me and deny there was a problem, but quite the opposite happened. He poured his heart out. How he’d not been enjoying the job, how stressed he felt, how he was worried he was heading towards mental illness, how he couldn’t talk to his wife or friends about it, how he realised that the stressing wasn’t helping him either but talking about it to me, had helped. 

How I stayed ‘below the line’ 

“You know, I think just the fact that I’ve been able to talk about this will make a difference,” Tony said. “Thank you for listening to me. I’ve been worrying about this for a long time.” 

“No problem,” I said, and then we talked for a bit longer about the things he was going to do, and it all made sense.  

Who’d have thought it! 

After the conversation I reflected on what happened. It had been so different to any other performance management conversation I’d ever conducted.  

I’d just finished a natural leader programme and the facilitators had talked about inner wisdom, letting the mental chatter subside, ‘above the line’ and ‘below the line thinking’ that I wasn’t sure I’d got. But something had obviously sunk in. 

I was calm and relaxed the whole way through and I realised I’d managed to stay ‘below the line’. 

I realised that when Tony and I first sat down, I’d got quiet and still, and I think that’s when my inner wisdom kicked in. Instead of everything I’d rehearsed, it occurred to me to ask him how he was doing, then sit back and wait for him to talk.  

I kept an eye on him after that, we’d have a chat every so often, just so I could see how he was doing, mentally more than anything, and he’s been fine. It took a little while for him to get back on top of things, I had to give him the space to get it all together again, but he’s doing well now. I’m so pleased I didn’t write him off, like I would have done in the past.



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