When I was in my mid-30’s, I hired an industrial psychologist to come into my CPA firm and help me answer the question, “What in the world is wrong with all my people?”
I had very high turnover. I was constantly disappointed with my staff’s low-level performance and lack of initiative. I was annoyed by their inability to do what I wanted them to do: just take care of our clients! I wanted my employees to anticipate a client’s needs and solve their problems without bringing them to me all the time, for Pete’s sake! It seemed simple enough to me, but my people couldn’t pull it off.
After a week of talking to my team, Mr. Psychologist came to me and announced that he had found the problem. I was so excited! Finally, we were going to get to the root cause and whip everybody into shape! “Wonderful!” I said. “What is it?”
“It’s you, Ken,” he said. “You are the reason for all these issues.”
At the time, I was dependent on regular doses of a highly-addictive and very harmful little medication called denial. I took another handful of the poisonous capsules and said, furiously, “That’s ridiculous! It can’t be me, it’s them! Keep looking.”
A week later, he came back. “It’s still you. In fact, they have a nickname for you: they call you ‘Hurricane Ken’. And in my professional opinion, I agree with them.”
Gulping, surprised, and trying to suppress my rage, I demanded, “So, WHY do they call me that?”
“Well, you blow through here in a fit of anger, jerking people around, commanding immediate delivery on this or that, making people cry, and generally scaring the crap out of them with your intensity. One of them said, ‘When Hurricane Ken is blowing, he can pretty much #&@* up this place worse than a category five hurricane, and the impact of one of his landfalls can last for weeks.’ That’s how it became your nickname, and everyone here calls you that – behind your back, of course.”
Undaunted, I popped another denial pill and said, “You’re wrong! I am good to these people! I pay them well, we have celebrations and do fun events… Yes, we work hard, but we play hard, too. I just have to be forceful with them, or we’ll never get anything done!”
Mr. Psychologist just sat there and looked at me. Realizing he was not going to back down, I allowed the steam to abate, and said “Well, IF it were true, I would have to say that I don’t see myself doing it.”
He responded, “You’re right, Ken. Most likely, you don’t. Our greatest strengths are often our greatest weaknesses, too, and your inability to see yours does not surprise me at all. We psychologists call these ‘blind spots’, and they’re very common in type A entrepreneurs. But while I can understand it, I can’t forgive it.”
So my shoulders sank and I slumped in my chair. Maybe it was me. I reflected back on my interactions with my staff. Yes, I was intense and I’d been harsh with employees, and yes, some of them cried. But I reasoned I needed to be that way to get my point across.
“I’m going to need help seeing when I do this,” I told Mr. Psychologist.
“Don’t worry, we’ve worked out a system. Since everyone is so scared of you, we’re going to post hurricane flags. When you’re not looking, people will change the flags as necessary based on their view of your behavior and interaction with them. A blue flag means ‘calm waters’ – you’re doing well. A yellow flag means trouble is brewing – watch out for Ken. A red flag means serious trouble, and two red flags is… well, really bad.”
“What does two red flags mean?” I asked.
“Evacuate”, he said. “That’s when you’re really at your peak intensity, and everyone needs to leave you alone completely until it’s safe to return.”
Slumping further, I fished around for my bottle of denial. I was humiliated. I began reflecting on my life. I realized I must do this at home, too. Even my own child had asked me, “Daddy, why do you have that face? Are you mad at us?”
And then in a moment of clarity, I decided. I dropped my bottle of denial in the trash. I had to make a change.
“I’ll go along,” I said. “Have them fly the flags, and I promise I’ll change. If I really am the problem, I have to be a better man and get a hold of this, or I’ll never be successful.”
So we did it; the staff flew their flags, and I paid attention. When I saw a yellow or red flag, I stepped back and re-examined the interactions I’d just had, and I realized what I’d done. I began counting to ten before reacting to what my people said or problems they brought to me. I began to think about how I would want to deal my own family, and I tried to have the gentleness of a loving parent when giving instructions to my team. I talked to them with the same respect I would use in addressing an elderly relative.
After many months, I knew I had gotten better when I realized that only blue flags were flying. Years later, when new employees heard the story of Hurricane Ken, they would say, “You’ve got to be kidding! I can’t believe Ken would be like that.”
I tell this story to all my clients in EOS sessions. It’s particularly helpful in intense situations when exchanges begin to get heated.
Every entrepreneur has the potential to be a hurricane, and if you have the same problem, it’s an extremely difficult challenge even to acknowledge it, let alone change. But we must face the fact that we are responsible for the way our people perceive us, and the way they feel about us has a huge impact on the way they perform. It’s nearly impossible to do a pleasing job for a boss you’re afraid to even talk to. Getting control of your temper and the way you interact can be a game-changer for you and your employees. And if Hurricane Ken can get a hold on his problem, then anyone can change!