Monday, March 19, 2012

The Spear of Fionn

I had been a supervisor for all of two days. I had been given a small function (two people – Ron and Barbara). I was attending my first leadership team meeting – and I was full of all the idealism and plans of a first-time supervisor.

This meeting was a people review, and the first words my new boss said were, “Big Boss wants Ron fired.” There was a moment of silence, and then I asked why.

“He just isn’t up to snuff. He’s a weak player. And Big Boss didn’t like the job he did on the big team meeting. So he needs to go.”

Two former supervisors of Ron were sitting at the table. One said, “Oh, yeah, Ron has always been a problem.”

I then committed a corporate faux pas. “So why didn’t you do something about it when he reported to you?” I asked.

The truth was, I knew Ron was a problem. I’d known since I’d been on the team, for almost three years. Ron was overwhelmed by his job, and the new technology that was transforming it. Some things he did well; others he didn’t do at all. Even before I became his supervisor, he had spent a fair amount of time in my office complaining how the rest of the team didn’t “get” what he was trying to do. He complained to me because, a long time previously, I had done his job. Actually, I did his job and a lot more.

At the leadership meeting, I looked down the table at the Human Resources person, who hated this kinds of issues. “What are our options?” I asked.

Looking at my boss, she said, “Fire him.”

“So what has he been told in his performance reviews? What’s in his file that would justifu the company firing him?”

I knew the answer.


Most organizations don’t like telling people they’re not doing well. It can get messy. Youmay have to explain yourself, and have your facts lined up.

But in Ron’s case, there was nothing.

“I’m going to put him into the performance process,” I said, “We’ll do it for 90 days and see where we are at the end.”

The process – designed by HR (and what the HR rep should have recommended) – is for problem employees. It’s a planned program of milestones and learnings. It has to be thought through carefully, and aims to get the employee up to par or end in termination. It’s a pain for supervisors to do, which is why Ron’s previous supervisors hadn’t done it. I hadn’t done one before, but spent a few days learning how to do it and set the program up.

I was unwrapping the spear of Fionn.

In The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America, David Whyte speaks of the myth of Fionn, the legendary greatest Irish poet, who is raised in hiding by two aunts in the woods of western Ireland. When a teenager, he meets the great bandit Call Mac Lara, who turns out to have been an adherent of Fionn’s father.

Call teaches Fionn all the cunning he knows – everything he knows – including about the spear, “a spear so given to the spitefulness of killing that it had to be tied to a tree and bound tightly with cloth.” The weapon is not to be used unless Fionn’s life is at stake.

Whyte likens the spear to a tool used (or not used) in corporate ethics. “Corporate ethics seems to swing between two extremes, on the one hand outright ruthless avarice, and on the other a reliance on bland and bloodless middle class ethics. The first one usually issues from the boardroom, the second from the Human Resources Department. One says the spear is to be used all the time or someone at some time will use it on you, while you’re not looking; the other denies its existence altogether and says we have only to work together and everything will be all right.”

The reality is that sometimes the spear has to be used. The parallel reality is that it should be used only sparingly.

Ron had largely failed in his job, but the organization and its leadership had also failed. That was why the situation had been tolerated – no one wanted to use the spear even though it was needed.

We did the performance process, which included weekly milestones and progress checks. At the end of the 90 days, Ron offered this assessment: “I did some things well, but the ones I know matter the most I didn’t do well at all. I just don’t get it.”

Two weeks later, I told Ron that we were letting him go with a severance package. He wasn’t happy about it, but he understood why.

I had used the spear of Fionn, and I quickly tied it back to the tree.

At TweetSpeak Poetry, we’re discussing David Whyte’s The Heart Aroused. Led by Lyla Lindquist, the discussion with links to other posts will post on Wednesday. My post today is on chapter 5, “The Salmon of Knowledge.” I will have a post Thursday on chapter 6, “Taking the Homeward Road.”


Maureen said...

Excellent illustration of the chapter, Glynn.

L.L. Barkat said...

I like what you did, because it allowed him to own the leaving, although it was still painful.

Maybe the spear is partly that... cutting into delicate places to reveal and not simply to kill.

I loved this chapter! :)

Anonymous said...

not just anyone should handle the spear.

Joshua A. Spotts said...

I think I'll Google+ one this post just because of the Irish mythology reference. ;) No, not really. It was an excellent piece of writing as well. It really kept my attention.

diana said...

Every week, I'm a little bit more sorry that I didn't read this book. Excellent reflection on difficult but important ideas. Thank you.

Lyla Willingham Lindquist said...

I remember walking down that same path early in my time in management, Glynn. I never had to untie the spear because during the process the individual made her own recognition that it just wasn't the right place for her and she made her own decision. I thought about it as I read this chapter.

I remember sitting across the desk from her one day when she looked at me, in tears, and said, "I've just never felt so incompetent in my whole life." She wasn't incompetent -- there were so many things she excelled at. Unfortunately, they just weren't a part of that position. I so wanted her to get into a place where she could put those skills and competencies to work. She ultimately did. But what a difficult road to walk...