Roger was an expert. As a new supervisor I relied on him to keep our CNC Router going. The CNC was the lifeblood of our department as it shaped all the desk-tops and table-tops our furniture factory produced. The raw top came to our department and was set on the CNC where the routers shaped the top into the size it needed to be and cut a groove in the edge so we could attach a “T” shaped edging to it; then the CNC drilled holes in the bottom so we could attach hardware and so the installers could attach legs or brackets to hang the worksurface. Finally we date-stamped it, labeled it and shoved it in a box for the customer. EVERYTHING depended on the CNC and it’s expert operator.
The problem was: Roger new he was THE expert and that the whole department depended on him. It went to his head. He would come to work just a little late and stay his breaks just a little long to make sure I knew he was the expert and I needed him. He would quit when he wanted to and start cleaning up even if we were only two tops away from finishing an order. I was the boss, the supervisor but he was the indispensable expert and made it clear to me that he ran the department.
John Maxwell, the leadership guru said, “You cannot lead those you need.” Even as a young (25 year-old) production supervisor I recognized there was something wrong with this arrangement. At first I started by calling him in the office and trying to be his friend and getting to know him but that backfired into even longer breaks and earlier cleanup. When he refused to stay a little longer for overtime to finish an order I “wrote him up” which was the first step in discipline. He laughed at me and didn’t change. When I gave him a second disciplinary letter over another refusal and he still didn’t change I began to document his tardiness to prepare to fire him. I can still, 20 years later, hear him say to me: “You can’t fire me, I keep this department going. They will fire you because you will get nothing done!”
What he didn’t know was that I was close to the First Shift Supervisor and I had sent one of my best employees to first shift to train with their CNC operator. Tim came back to my Second Shift ready and trained and I moved Roger to pounding the vinyl edging for a week as Tim ran the CNC and ran it well. From that time on, Roger was one of my best employees. You cannot lead those you need.
I learned some life lessons from that experience. I learned that, while being friends is great and good, you cannot befriend everyone if you want to be a leader. I learned that NO ONE is indispensable and EVERY ONE can be replaced, including me. I learned that befriending someone with a big head only makes the head bigger and you smaller. After a dose of humility and recognizing he really wasn’t indispensable Roger and I had a great working relationship and I had the respect of the department.
Are you an expert? How’s your head girth?