I opened my desk drawer and our petty cash was gone! It was there yesterday just before leaving that evening. Jack, our CIO, was the last one in the office after I went home. He was the only possible culprit.
Jack was the smartest person I’d ever met. He was an expert in everything, with depth, training, experience, and skill. Yet he couldn’t hold on to a dollar. Every Monday, on his way to our office, he’d drop off his beloved guitar at a nearby pawn shop to get a few extra bucks to barely carry him through the week until his band’s next weekend gig. I had no idea what he did with his paycheck, but he was always short on cash.
What was I to do? Fire him on the spot?
I called Carol, our HR consultant. We were a start-up, in our formative years, relying on a contract HR provider instead of in-house staff. She was a quick study.
Carol knew Jack started working for us over a year ago. She asked, “Has Jack ever done anything like this before?
“Never!” I blurted out. Jack was great, until now. He performed exceedingly well in his executive management role on strategic and tactical digital technology planning and execution. But Jack went far beyond that, providing exquisite ideas in developing and executing our corporate action plans in nondigital areas.
Carol suggested, “Ask Jack privately about what he did and why he did it. Look for an underlying reason for his financial distress, like drugs, gambling, alcohol. Give him a chance to explain. He may need help, like counseling. Offer a form of “deferred prosecution.” Do you know what that means?”
“Yes, but not in this context,” I answered.
“In this case, it’s an agreement between the employer and employee to dismiss this entire matter after the employee fulfills certain conditions. For example, Jack completes a series of counseling sessions and performs his job without any wrongdoing for the next 12 months. You meet with him periodically and after he complies with these terms and all is forgiven. If at any point he fails to comply, in anyway, you terminate him immediately.
This took me aback. “We have a thief on our staff now. How can I trust him?”
“You’re a small outfit. Firing Jack could hurt you more than him. This could be something Jack did once, which he regrets and he’ll never repeat. Find out before you act. If he fulfills the conditions you establish, you’ll likely trust each other more than ever before,” offered Carol.
Certainly, we all make mistakes, but this was a huge one. I had little to go on except Carol’s advice.
Twenty-two years later, Jack was still working for us. He complied with his deferred prosecution terms and we never looked back. In fact, he was crucial to our company’s success.
Paradoxically, I learned a key lesson from Jack’s blunder. Look for a pattern when interacting with others to understand more fully what’s really happening. While we all make mistakes. It’s the pattern that matters in many cases.
I applied this same thinking in other areas. I looked for a pattern when collecting information about what went right and wrong during a client project. I always sought to find a pattern before suggesting I understood the client situation. I never wanted to make recommendations based on a one-off.
For example, Melia, an authorizing sponsor, told me she sought front-line input about her struggling project. As authorizing sponsor, Melia legitimized the project and provided the required resources, so she ought to know who to contact about what was happening.
Melia asked me to help her find out what was going on with her distressed project. I met with multiple front-line staff, who told me Melia scheduled meetings with them without much advance notice, showed up late to all of these meetings, announced her latest project mandates, and left immediately without discussion or feedback from anyone. The pattern provided irrefutable evidence that the authorizing sponsor’s actions, not her words, indicated she didn’t want front-line input.
While Melia didn’t like hearing why her project struggled, she couldn’t argue with my findings. She sought immediate corrective action with her front-line staff, gaining their feedback about how to achieve project success.