Why I Stopped Firing Everyone and Started Being a Better Boss
Even as her company advised federal agencies and businesses on how to train and nurture employees, Indigo Johnson, a former Marine, ran her team like a drill instructor. She fired employees so regularly that few of them ever lasted longer than a year. Until finally she realized—she was the problem. As told to April Joyner.
Coming from the Marine Corps, I always felt that you had to be hard charging and no nonsense to get results. But many of my employees withered under the pressure. I didn't give them a chance to grow. I fired them.
I had been running a human resources company for more than a decade, and I'd written a book about career management. I would help my clients' employees identify why they weren't getting promotions and develop more skills. But I wasn't doing those things for my own staff.
That all changed about two years ago, when I started a Ph.D. program in leadership. I read a wonderful article that said, "Pulling on grass doesn't make it grow faster." That was so profound for me. I always felt that if I pulled you, that would make you stronger. I had to soften up.
I had blamed the people I fired. But no one is going to come to your company perfect. If you look at the common thread, it was me. It wasn't our hiring practice, because we vetted people really well. But once they were here, I didn't help them flourish.
More than anything, I had to allow people to utilize their strengths. I had focused on weaknesses. If you weren't good at something, I would try to get you to correct it. But you can't change who people are. All you can do is give them an environment where their positive attributes will expand.
Now I focus on nurturing. A big thing for me is having retreats and strategic-planning sessions, so that people can step aside from their hands-on work and take time to develop. And if people say they'd like to try a new skill, we give them an opportunity to do it.
I also hired a confidant, my COO, who joined the company last year. As a business owner, it's hard to get candid feedback. Now I have someone who can tell me, "This is how it's done."
I haven't fired anyone in more than a year, and we've tripled our number of employees. That's huge. One of my employees just had her one-year anniversary at the company. At a recent team-building event, she said, "The life I had a year ago is not the same life I have today." That lets me know I'm on the right path.