Should You Fire These People?

I had a call from a client, Sandra, just a few days ago. Here’s the situation: She and her partner own a small chain of very nice antique shops in the West Country. One of the shops is run by Martha (not her real name). Martha is a serious problem.

She is very negative and rude to customers. I don’t think she swears at them, it’s more the unhelpful variety of behaviour. She pours cold water on ideas. She goes off with stress for weeks at a time.

Sandra had read my book, Difficult People Made Easy and felt that Martha demonstrated most of problems in the book.

The question was should they ask me to come over and see if I could help them to sort Martha out? Sandra was very keen, but her business partner, Toby, felt the cost was too great.

How Much Is Martha Costing?

I asked Sandra this question. Her partner thought it was about £100 a week. When I heard this I sighed because I knew with absolute certainty that this was nowhere near the true cost.

How Did I Know?

Over the years I have worked with many clients on the issue of costs. In January I helped a client work out the cost of two of the team members: one was £0.5M the other, double that. He was horrified. He’d known they were problems, but just hadn’t added up all the figures.

He hadn’t included the cost of replacing all the people who had left because they didn’t like working in those teams, or the customers who had stopped doing business with them or the contracts they simply didn’t even tender for. Or the cost of the delays to the organisational transformation plans due to their incompetence.

“Where would your department be if these people were on plan?” I asked.  “What is this late delivery costing you?” Needless to say, when I saw him in February, he was already working on the issues with the two recalcitrant members of his team. He had set some very clear objectives and standards of behaviour and timetables for them.

In case you are wondering, they are getting some support to help them build the skills they need.


Let’s look at the real costs of Martha to the business. What you need to do is ask yourself some questions about what Martha does and does not do.

Toby was probably just taking into account the odd customer who sees something in the window, comes in to buy it and then, because if Martha’s rudeness or lack of interest, does not buy the item.

The Questions I Asked Sandra:

(With her answers.)
Me: “What ideas has Martha had and implemented to increase sales?”
Sandra: “Are you serious? She has never had a positive idea, only negative ones.”
Me: “How has she developed the staff? How has she followed up enquiries? How does she build relationships with customers so that they come back and recommend you to their friends?” Sandra: “None of the above!”

The Real Costs

Now let’s look at the costs and just take a conservative view.


To keep things mathematically easy, let’s assume average sales of £4000/week.


I would expect a person in charge of a shop like that to come up with a few ideas on a monthly basis to improve sales – special offers, ways of displaying products, ways of ‘up-selling’ (this vase would go well with that ornament) etc.

Let’s say those ideas increased sales by just 10% over a year. If you have ever run a sales team or worked with these teams you will know that it’s not unheard of for some sales people to have double the sales of others, so I think this is a completely achievable estimate.

Developing Staff

I would also expect the manager to develop the staff in their team so they become better sales people and also have ideas, another way of increasing sales. Let’s say by another 5%.

Again, I have seen good people do a great deal more than this.


Let’s imagine they systematize ways of following up enquiries – for instance taking a potential customer’s details and doing a bit of research and phoning the potential customer to say they have found the kind of item they are looking for. Perhaps that could increase sales by 5% over a year. (There are some who could claim this kind of thing can double your sales.)


If the sales people were to build up relationships with clients, for example, finding out when birthdays were approaching and contacting the partner/children/friends with suggestions for presents (thinking of presents is a problem for many people), giving discounts to long-standing clients, for introducing friends, holding evening events with interesting speakers talking about specific kinds of antiques, starting a club and so on.

Let’s imagine that this could increase sales by a further 5%. Again, a very conservative estimate.

We are now talking about increasing sales by 25%. (Remember, any one of these actions on its own could increase sales by 50% or double them so we are being very conservative here.)

That’s £1000/week. Accounting for bank holidays etc, over a 50-week year, that’s £50,000.

Even if the sales were just increased by 10% in total using all these ideas, that’s still £20000 over one year. Martha’s been there for 20 years. In today’s money, that’s (are you sitting down, Sandra?) £400,000 that you have thrown away, in a conservative estimate.

And in this example, I’ve just assumed a one-off increase that stayed at the same level for 20 years.

For every day when you do nothing, the cost is around £46 on this estimate. If we went for the possible 25% sales increase, the cost is £143 per day. Not £100 per week as Toby thought. It is ten times that! (Oh yes, and this doesn’t include the tickets to Glyndebourne… and other long service awards…)

What a Good Manager Can Do

I worked with a superb sales manager a few years ago. She ran a conference centre.  These estimates are nothing compared to what she achieved.

She had her staff trained up in all kinds of sales skills, she installed new systems for looking after customers, had new literature designed, and developed new products.

Sales were more than doubled (much more) over a few years.

A good manager really pays for themselves, in any area, not just sales. A bad, or even mediocre, manager, costs you thousands.

In this case, Martha is not just performing badly herself, but encouraging others to do so as well, so I have been very generous on the true costs here.

Another Way to Calculate Costs

I talked just yesterday to a very efficient administrator about time management. She didn’t think her organisation was too bad. The trouble is; that was because she’d got used to it and was compensating for it.

“How much of your time do you spend chasing people up?” I asked her. “20% of your time? 30%?” She looked down and admitted that this was probably the case.

Let’s assume it’s 20%. We looked around the room. There were about 20 people in the office. I suggested that the rest of them probably had a similar problem and she couldn’t deny it. So we could assume that they were all spending 20% of their time chasing others.

Chasing other people is one of those tasks you really shouldn’t have to do. It is a completely non-value-added task. It just shouldn’t be necessary.

But Here’s the Worst Bit

If none of those 20 people had to chase anyone, you would have the equivalent of four extra people, for free. Just think what you could do with that resource. In a company of 1000, that’s 200 people. What could you do with them?

Have you worked with anyone like this? I know I have? How bad were they? And what did you do? Do you think they should be helped or fired?

Overtime and Health

Overtime and Heart Disease

A recent study of 6000 British civil servants showed that those who worked three or four hours of overtime a day were at a 60% higher risk of developing heart disease.

The researchers identified a number of possible causes:

  • Less time to do exercise
  • More stress
  • More depression
  • Being a ‘Type A’ personality
  • More likely to work when they are ill

However they said more research was needed to identify if this was a causal link or a correlation.

Whichever it is, I know there are many people working long hours who would rather not. I have often worked with those people and was reminded of them when I came across this report.

One in particular sprang to mind. We’ll call him Tony. When I first encountered Tony, he was seriously overweight, pallid and having trouble concentrating. He worked most evenings. He was from Europe and his family were all still there, so he told me sadly that he didn’t really mind working in the evenings as he had nothing else to do.

Time Management

We worked on his time management issues and, over the next few weeks, he started to work less and look better. Then we reached a plateau. He had continued with his spreadsheet analysis of where all his time was going and it pointed to just one issue. Everything else had been eliminated.


His name was Russell. Tony worked with Russell on just two out of six projects. Russell was badly organised and not very good at his job in other respects.  So Tony was constantly having to pick up things that Russell had not done, or had done badly.

One of Russell’s projects involved developing the strategy for a marketing project. He thought that all the ideas must come from him, so he would not listen to the ideas from others on the ‘team’.  He didn’t really understand what a team was for so the group of people he worked with weren’t really a team at all, just a collection of very frustrated, annoyed, inefficient and disillusioned individuals.

Wasted Hours

In the column marked “Wasted” on Tony’s sheet, the figures were adding up alarmingly. This column was there for the time taken on anything that, in hindsight, should not have been necessary. The more closely Tony looked, the more he found.

He was forced to add in whole meetings that were merely repeats of previous meetings run by Russell and time spent developing ideas that were not considered. He also had to add in the time he spent calming down his colleagues and persuading them to do things they shouldn’t have to do.


He then started adding in the difference between how long the meetings should have taken compared with the actual time. He had made huge gains on his own meetings so now knew what could be achieved and was measuring Russell’s performance against a new standard.


Then he started adding in the time he had to spend sorting out problems that Russell had caused. It turned out to be a lot.


He finally took this analysis to his manager, who was shocked. He had realised that Russell was a bit of a problem, but had no idea things were so bad. He then talked to Russell’s manager and this started the process of getting Russell some help.

Six months’ later I ran into Tony in the canteen. Well, I say I ran into him, the truth is I didn’t recognise him. He had to attract my attention. He was a new man. He had lost over 4 stone in weight and was glowing with health. A far cry from my original client. I asked him what had happened.

Once things started to improve with Russell, Tony’s excess workload had reduced considerably, allowing him time to exercise and enjoy himself a bit in the evenings. It had also meant that he was able to plan more effectively and make a much more effective contribution overall.

He gave me a big (muscular) hug and then, with a very happy expression, reported that he had made so much progress that he had been promoted and would now be returning to live with his family again.

How Does This Happen?

Though quite a few of Tony’s problems were of his own making, many were not. Having to work with someone as poorly skilled as Russell was causing Tony, and many of his colleagues, huge problems. It was also a great cost to the company.

It is a manager’s responsibility to identify these problems and ensure they are resolved. Very often I suspect they just don’t realise how bad they are or the seriousness of the impact for others (let alone the total cost).

If you are suffering from any of these problems, it’s really worth putting in some effort to get them resolved.

Get Some Help

For help tackling these problems you can get our new set of booklets, Solving Management Problems, for just £25 this week:

A Risky Business

One of the areas that many people shy away from is taking risks, yet, if you look at the research, taking risks can give you the big leaps in improvement that other strategies often fail to achieve.

When I talk about taking risks in workshops, many participants spend much of their time explaining why risks can’t be taken in their job or in their company. Then, if they do come up with ideas for risks they could take, they are often options that would give a tiny benefit and not what you or I would call a ‘risk’ at all.

Why Is This?

I suspect they are usually frightened off by the very word ‘risk’, and culturally they have been trained not to do it.

When I had lunch with PY Gerbeau (serial entrepreneur, who used to run the Millennium Dome) a few years ago, he told me how he used to give a prize each week for the best failed risk taken that week! I thought this demonstrated an amazing management style. It was quite obvious that this would encourage risk-taking.

However, he did not expect his people to be taking unnecessary risks with no plan for what they would do if the idea failed. He was encouraging them to come up with new ways of tackling problems and achieving their goals, and backing them for doing that.

A Salutary Experience

For a while when I was a student I did some voluntary work in a home for battered wives. I worked with the children giving them ‘art classes’.

I discovered that the children in the home had had virtually no art lessons at all. They had often had to move schools several times to escape their violent parent. They had missed a lot of schooling as a result.

It soon became evident that what they really needed was to have some fun. That’s what I tried my best to give them. Their favourite activity involved them taking off their shoes and socks, covering their feet with paint and running up and down on left over rolls of wallpaper that I managed to get at knock down prices from a local shop.

Another fun ‘lesson’ involved me turning out all the lights and then taking pictures of the children while they made faces. I would then bring the photos in the following week (no digital cameras in those days). They thought this was hilarious.

In my current role I have met adults who used to be children just like those I once knew. Often they are working with me because their childhood has had such a profound (and damaging) impact on their lives.

So it was with great interest I listened to a report about a new strategy for tackling domestic violence that the Strathclyde Police Force implemented over the last year. They are claiming it has halved the number of murders over the last year from 11 per year in 2007-2008 to six in the last year.

Instead of focusing on the victims they have focused their attention on the alleged perpetrator.

They have concentrated on serial offenders, people who abuse more than one partner. These people will often treat several partners in exactly the same way. So the police officers have made great efforts to track down and arrest these offenders, resulting in a positive outcome for victims.

In the last year, officers have carried out numerous dawn raids.

Their work has resulted in 400 crimes that were previously unreported coming to light.

The task force has focused on the life style of people who tend to commit these crimes and mounting surveillance operations on those individuals.

If they know that person is likely to commit an offense on a Friday they will knock on the door to prevent it.

Uncovering these crimes can be very difficult. The women and children I knew were the ones who had had the ability and means to leave their abusing family member. So they were the strong ones. I know there are many more who are just so worn down and frightened that they are unable to do this, let alone report the problems to the police.

The Risk

I don’t know how the Strathclyde Police planned this approach, but I’m sure they put a great deal of effort into it. I imagine they knew it was a risk; it might not have worked.

I also wonder how long it took for the officer in charge to get agreement to his or her idea. And I wonder what would have happened if it had failed.

Where Did The Idea Come From?

Having a look on the web site, it seems that the strategy originates with tactics that have previously been used for serious crime investigations. And this is often the case. You can apply an idea from another area in your own team to great effect.

What Risks Can You Take?

I think it’s a really good idea to ask ourselves every now and then what risks we can take ourselves that might give some improvement. There’s always something. Just finding out what others are doing and trying that can help.

Are You Encouraging Your Team To Take Risks?
This is a good question to ask yourself. And if you aren’t…

Why Not?

Getting Your Ideas Accepted

The Post-It Note

I am indebted to Grapevine reader David McCoy for drawing to my attention an article about the 30th birthday of the Post-It note.

I’m old enough to remember life before the Post-It and what an innovation they were at the time (and still are).

In case you don’t know the story, the innovation came from Geoff Nicholson who was impressed with a new kind of adhesive that his colleague, Spencer Silver, had come up with.

But the bosses were not interested. Then another colleague, Art Fry, made a pad using the adhesive and used the pages to mark pages in a hymnbook.

Geoff Nicholson then started giving colleagues pads of the Post-Its and they became very popular, but that management still was not interested.

In the end his secretary was swamped with requests for the pads so, in his words: “I was really ticked off, so I told my secretary, ‘Please direct all requests for samples to the marketing director.’ He was flooded with requests for a product he didn’t believe in.”

He says there is a saying at 3M “Every great new product is killed at least three times by managers.”

It’s very easy to look back on ideas that are now completely obvious and criticise those who didn’t see it.

Why Is It So Hard?

One of our clients a long time ago was a software company. The owner had set the company up himself and had very strong ideas about how things should be done and what clients required.
Most of those who worked for him were about the same age as his grandchildren. They had very different ideas of what customers wanted and how to meet those needs.

The difficulties arose because the communications between the owner and the people at the customer-facing edge was poor.

When the programmers tried to tell the owner how they thought things should be done, it came across as an insult to the owner, because it seemed to be a criticism of the way he had done things in the past.

When he tried to explain to them why things had to be done his way, the programmers saw it as him refusing to even listen to their ideas.

What Can You Do About It?

Initially this sounds like a simple argument between young and old. And it can often be split that way. But when you investigate more carefully you see that this is just because people in more senior positions tend to be older.

Often those more mature employees doing the customer-facing work or the leading edge technical work have the same problems with senior people.

The key is to understand the perspective of the other party before you start trying to persuade them of your good idea.

Upsetting Your Manager

I remember one group of research scientists I worked with who had fallen into the trap of upsetting their managers when presenting their new research. They had forgotten that the managers were responsible for much of the old research and therefore had a lot invested in those ideas.

Presenting research in a way that suggested their work was rubbish was bound to annoy them. This immediately put any ideas at a disadvantage.

However, presenting it in a way that showed how they had built on what the senior managers had done had the reverse effect.

What’s Important To Them?

Finding out what’s important to people before you try to persuade them of your great idea can be very useful. You need to forget why you think it’s a great idea and work out why they might think it’s so good.

Here’s an example from an old client, Frank. He worked in an industry that used leading edge technology all over the world. He complained to me that the CEO of his company was not interested in a great new project he wanted to start.

I asked him what he had said to the CEO. ‘I told him that it was a great project in Hawaii with exciting new technology that’s right at the edge.’ He responded enthusiastically.
‘What are your CEO’s qualifications?’ I asked.
‘He’s an accountant’ replied Frank.
How do you think he views ‘leading edge technology’?’ I asked.
‘Ah…’ muttered Frank.

I suggested that Frank might focus on the financial benefits to the company of this project. They were substantial, but he hadn’t even mentioned them, because the location and technology were much more interesting to him. All the CEO could see was the huge risk involved in leading edge technology and the massive travelling expenses budget.

The new project went ahead and, as far as I know, was successful.

A last word from Nicholson

Here is his take on innovation: “Research is the transformation of money into knowledge. Innovation is the transformation of knowledge into money,”

And on Creativity:

In answer to the question why are Post-Its yellow? “There just happened to be some yellow scrap paper in the lab. Creativity and inspiration are when you see an accident and recognise its value.”

Remember to book your place on the Objectives teleseminar next week:
Date: Tuesday 18 May
Time: 2pm for one hour
Cost: £25 including VAT

The Orchestra

My father told me this story that he heard at a conference run by some school inspectors many years ago.

An auditor was mistakenly sent to audit an orchestra giving a concert. He took his job very seriously and carried out his audit, looking for efficiency improvement opportunities. He found plenty.

They were all listed in his report.

The Report

He noted that, whilst there was only one musician playing the drums there were 10 playing violins, and for much of the time many of them played the same notes. He pointed out that they only needed two violins at any one time. And that this was the case for many of the other instruments in the orchestra.

In some cases there was a need only for one.

The conductor did little other than wave a stick around, so did not add any value to what the customer heard.

Many phrases were repeated several times during the performance, sometimes by several instruments.

There were periods of complete silence, totalling nearly three minutes.

There was a break of 20 minutes during the concert when nothing was played at all.

There were no instruments that were played continuously. There were several (the oboe, the trumpet and the cymbals) that were played for less than five minutes in total. This could be achieved far more efficiently, with far fewer people, if all the musicians played more than one instrument.

In fact, if most of them played four instruments, and the playing were timetabled properly, this could lead to a cost-saving of nearly 65%.

In Summary

Lastly, he pointed out that if all his recommendations were followed, the whole concert could be played in seven minutes and 30 seconds.

I love this story and the concepts behind it. Efficiency is quite a hard concept to grasp.

At the moment I’m listening to a CD version of the Jane Austen book Persuasion. It’s the complete novel, read by Juliet Stephenson. And I’m enjoying it so much more than any film version I have ever seen.

Why is that? It’s eight hours 43 minutes and 37 seconds long, much longer than any of the films.

The Detail

Because there are little details in there that the film versions, no matter how good, can never portray. The language that Jane Austen uses in describing the thoughts and behaviours of the protagonists is clever, witty and tremendously insightful. Just listening to it is a joy.

Yes, I could watch a film, but I want to wallow in the book.


When I was running a workshop recently for a group of people who are going through some drastic changes at work, we spent some time looking at the problems and what could be done, but we also spent some time doing a few ‘fun’ exercises.

At the end of the day all the participants identified what they were going to take back to their teams.

One individual, with great force, said she was going to put the ‘fun’ back into work. She said they’d forgotten that work could be fun and it was about time they got back to that.

A Reminder

I was very glad to get the reminder myself. Whilst I do enjoy most of what I do, I will confess that I don’t really like doing my expenses or my tax return (now due).

Though I have cut down a great deal on travelling, I still do quite a lot, though always with my iPod plugged into the stereo. When I arrived at my hotel this evening I could hardly tear myself away from dear Jane. And now I can barely wait for the next instalment, even though I know what’s going to happen.

A Measure

I was talking with a client recently and he was concerned that many of the people he has been working with are under the impression that being ‘busy’ is a measure of success. If they are running around like ‘headless chickens’ then this means they are valuable managers.

This is probably because they have never been told what is really important.

Choose Your Surgeon

Imagine you are in serious need of a difficult operation. Your life is at risk. Without the surgery you could die. You have the choice of two surgeons: Mrs Smith and Mrs Jones.

Mrs Smith

She is always in a hurry, she rushes everywhere, does not have time to attend important meetings, and works long hours. She is always complaining about how busy she is and how many patients she has in her waiting list.

She hands in her expenses late, is incapable of working out her budgets and blames others for her failings. She spends much of her time making excuses for things she has not done.

Mrs Jones

She is cool and calm. She is always punctual and able to arrange to attend important meetings. When she arrives at a meeting (whether it’s with a patient or a colleague), she is well-prepared and up to date with the background information.

Her work is delivered in good time and she is up to date with her expenses.

Which surgeon would you like to have operating on you?


Are you focusing on the right things? Different situations demand different measures. Using the wrong one can cause all kinds of problems.

Even more importantly; are you getting enough fun and enjoyment? If not, what are you doing about it? What about your team and your colleagues? Do they enjoy their work?

Running a time management course just this week, we came up against the most important question of all to ask yourself before you do anything: ‘Why am I doing this?’

Until you know the answer to that question it’s very hard to focus on the most important thing, whether it’s enjoying and savouring the language of Jane Austen or getting your new website launched on time.


Remember to sign up for my Teleseminars:


2pm (UK time) Tuesday 12 May

How to Create Effective Powerpoint Presentations

2pm (UK time) Wednesday 12 May

For more details go to: