The trouble with numbers.

In my first real management job, I almost fired the wrong person.

I was working in a small organization ($25M annual revenue) as the director of sales and marketing (will write about the terribleness of that specific job title another day), and I managed a team of account reps who, like me, were in the unwinnable position of having to do both sales and marketing at the same time.

Young, self-assured, and ambitious, I was eager to apply what I’d learned from mentors, managers, and AMA training. The account team was behind goal and had been for several years, and my assignment was to get things on track, quickly.

The reps each worked in different vertical market niches. They had different raw number goals, so their performance was tracked by percentage to goal. They each had wide latitude in developing campaigns and messages, and each was responsible for coordinating with the technical/operations team once an agreement was in place.

I was, at the time, well-versed in (drunk on…) the lingo: “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.” “Set SMART goals!” “Use data to be objective, and don’t let emotions cloud your judgment.”

Racing against a 90-day clock, which was the timeframe I’d been given when I accepted the job, I gobbled up the numbers. I reviewed booking rates, close rates, completion rates. Across the five-person team, there were two immediately obvious outliers, a high-flyer who routinely beat goal and a struggler who hadn’t met goal more than once or twice a quarter in the previous three years, doing well enough — barely — to avoid termination but clearly behind everyone else. The rep who was struggling was bringing the whole team’s performance down. The team didn’t meet goal because that rep really didn’t meet goal.

Easy decision, right?

So I made the plan to reduce the team size, eliminate the low performer, and reassign accounts. I presented the plan, backed by numbers and statistics, to the VP, who responded by saying, “Sometimes numbers lie,” and suggested I sleep on the decision.

I woke in the middle of the middle of the night knowing I was about to fire the wrong person.

The high flyer, whom I’ll call Pat, was — and there’s just no other word for this — an asshole. A spectacular bully. Everyone was afraid of Pat. Pat barked orders, criticized and berated team members publicly. And got away with it.

The low performer, whom I’ll call Sam, was as universally loved as Pat was feared. While Pat was known to put people down and call out even the tiniest mistake, Sam had a reputation for supporting people by complimenting them in meetings.

Sam knew everyone’s name. Pat couldn’t be bothered to remember the names of front-line support staff.

And Sam loved the company, while Pat complained bitterly — and loudly — about how things weren’t ever up to par.

But Pat knocked it out of the park, as the saying goes, every single quarter.

“I’m about to fire the wrong person,” I said to the VP, who nodded and said, “So what’s next?”

I went back to the drawing board. The company was numbers-driven in the extreme, and there was no way around the basic performance statistics. There was also no chance of making the decision based on my young, inexperienced, and, let’s just put it out there, female assessment of account reps’ personalities.

I asked for another 30 days and thought about what other numbers and statistics could support a different, less immediately obvious decision.

I developed a daily feedback form for operations team members, using a structured survey to get data (submitted anonymously) about working with all five account reps.

I developed a similar survey for customers, collecting both quantitative and qualitative input.

In analyzing the customer survey, I noticed something odd. Pat’s business base had a larger number of first-time accounts compared to Sam’s. Sam had smaller accounts that each had a smaller transaction rate, but they were pretty much all repeat business.

Their market niches were more different than seemed at first glance, too. The way they were assigned seemed fair on the surface. But when all of the accounts were compared in aggregate, the dividing lines between high-ticket and low-return accounts had less to do with vertical market niche than with size, location, and demographics of the organizations.

Pat’s account list was was going to perform better no matter what. Sam’s account list would always be challenging.

When I dug into the HR files, I found that Sam had been counseled every quarter for missing goal. The “performance improvement” plans showed an interesting pattern. Sam was willing to try anything to improve — training, mentoring, new tactics. Sam was determined to persevere and keep trying, never giving excuses for missing goal. The notes in these performance improvement plans matched the differences I’d noted in the account assignments. The niche was challenging, and Sam was trying everything available to make it work.

In Pat’s file? Not a single performance improvement plan. Not a single complaint or note about bullying or bad behavior, even though Pat’s reputation was discussed and joked about very openly.

The last bit of research I did was also internal but not analytical. I looked through internal newsletters and communications. Pat was always front-and-center being congratulated for beating goal and moving the company forward. When Sam appeared in the newsletters, which was far less often, it was in group photos of company events or celebrations.

Pat was constantly being recognized and rewarded as top performer. Sam was clearly second string. But Pat ate lunch alone every day, sitting at the computer. Sam was in the lunchroom, sitting with employees from different departments.

Right about now, you’re probably thinking that the surveys gave me hard numbers to put to my soft assessment that Pat, not Sam, was the real problem. Pat was a bully while Sam was a team-builder.

You’re probably thinking the customer data, similarly, supported keeping Sam and giving Pat the pink slip.

And you’re right about all that. But that’s not what I did.

“They’re in the wrong jobs, and the territories need to be restructured,” I said to the VP, a month later. I laid out a data-backed plan to separate the five-person team into roles that matched their strengths. “And,” I added, “we’ve got to address Pat’s bullying. It’s unfair to everyone else here if we don’t.”

All five account reps got new assignments and new performance plans.

Pat was furious and let everyone know it. Which was just icing on the cake by that point. That outburst landed Pat in the VP’s office, with me and an HR representative.

We laid it out plainly: Pat’s abusive behavior was negatively impacting the team and would no longer be tolerated. We offered coaching and counseling in support of a behavior change. The company had a “three strikes” policy, as was pretty standard then (and probably still is, now). The outburst was the first documented infraction. Two more, and Pat would be terminated immediately, irrespective of hitting sales targets.

Did the behavior change? A little, but not entirely.

A year or so later, Pat came to my office with news of having been recruited by another company for a job that was pure sales, developing new business in a new territory. The job was mostly remote and mostly solo work.

“The thing is,” Pat said, “I don’t really like working with other people, and I don’t like the way I behave when I have to work on a team.”

We agreed that the move sounded like a better fit, and I wished Pat luck.

The team’s overall performance improved incrementally, but sales continued to lag behind goal. Market research pointed to both product deficiencies and pricing issues. The company was eventually acquired.

In the acquisition announcement, the new CEO noted that the company’s greatest asset, indeed what drove the acquisition, was its foundation of strong, loyal customer relationships.


A seemingly unrelated endnote:

I’m thinking today about relationships, numbers, human behavior, growth, and change.

July 4th commemorates the start of a radical experiment that is being tested in ways I believe the Founders might actually have imagined. I believe, because I choose to believe, that the design of our democratic republic was intentionally both complex and nuanced, written to acknowledge and continue evolving from inherent human behavior in all its strengths and weaknesses, bridge-building and bullying alike.

I still believe in the American experiment, despite its current messy state. Actually, maybe because of that.

As Margaret Renkl put it so well: It’s my flag, too.

Long may she wave.

3 thoughts on “The trouble with numbers.

  1. Love this post!!!! I don’t know if you know who Simon Sinek is but he has written an incredible book called “The Infinite Game”. What you described in your story about Pat and Sam was a textbook example of what was happening. Simon, along with almost every other leader out there right now, preaches about how you have to look at the overall picture AND the people without focusing totally on numbers. There are many examples of companies… even ones that had been around for decades, closing their doors because they looked at the wrong “future”. I love the way you think about these things also. It is why this posts resonated with me. ❤️
    I have been reading your posts even though I have not commented much… Life is difficult right now, but getting better. Have an awesome week! 😘

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