I was at our recent Principals Academy in Denver and having breakfast with a table of attendees. They were swapping stories about that "one" employee everyone seems to have trouble with (and some firms have them in multiples). The tales ranged from the absolutely laughable to the downright frustrating. When nearly everyone had their chance to vent, the group became quiet as we resumed eating our eggs and bacon, reflecting on the real scenarios just shared.
A fellow sitting with us broke the silence and said, "I was that guy once."
This was the second day of the seminar so we had gotten to know a bit about him: He asked thoughtful and challenging questions, took copious notes, was fairly outgoing and talkative with the other attendees, and given that he was at our program, he was on his way to becoming a principal at his firm. He also was fairly young. I'll call him Daniel for the sake of this article. It just wasn't possible he was once a lazy, uninspired, 9 to 4:30, mumbling, sloppy-work-producing project manager. Or was it?
We all looked at him incredulously until someone chuckled nervously and asked what happened to cause such a transformation.
Daniel had no reservation in recounting the years he lapsed into a project management coma and, for no singular reason, slowly turned his focus to anything and everything outside the project and outside the office. They were good things but they were distracting things. It showed in his work and in his attitude. He wasn't reckless, but he didn't care. Daniel didn't have much respect for his boss because he felt the boss had no respect for him. Looking back, Daniel understands why. Daniel's boss just let him slide further, tolerated his presence, and never said a word – good or bad.
Then one day, another principal at the firm just couldn't take it anymore, brought Daniel into the office one fine morning, and hit him with the verbal crowbar and threw in a dose of reality to finish him off. Daniel returned to his cubicle indignant at first but then began to count the things he'd lose if he lost his job. He was slated to get married in the next six months and with no job, there'd be no money, and then no girl!
Then he replayed the principal's lecture over in his mind and found several compliments: Daniel was smart, he mastered things quicker than others, he had remarkable design talent for someone so young, he had great potential. But the key of the message was that he was wasting it. And if he wanted to waste it, he should do it at some other firm.
Daniel woke up from his stupor and got his act together. He did it without any fanfare or quest for redemption. He thought, worked, and performed like a project manager. He eventually moved on to a different firm and is thriving there too. He credits that principal with saving his professional life and reminding him about his passion for his work. He knows that his boss didn't have the leadership skills or guts to help him out of his slump or make him aware he was in one. It was easier to complain about Daniel to other managers behind his back, rather than confront him altogether.
This isn't a story one hears very often at a seminar for principals-to-be. Mostly, we hear about accelerated paths to success or natural steady progression because the architect or engineer is carefully mentored and guided by another leader. What makes Daniel's narrative more impactful is not only his matter-of-fact style in relating it, but the simplicity of the solution. None of the folks at our breakfast table thought yet about really confronting that "one" person they were managing. And certainly none of them really thought their frustrating candidate was salvageable.
Every firm has that "one" project manager or team member. Before giving up on them completely and letting them hang like a big, black cloud, talk to them honestly. Believe it or not, they may actually be one of the firm's next bright owners.
Christine Brack, PMP, is a principal with ZweigWhite specializing in business planning and project management best practices.
She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.