The Snake in the Grass

I recently had coffee with a friend, a former senior hedge fund manager. He now works on his own, paid his dues over many years in the banks, and for a number of years ran the Asia-Pac investment-banking practice for one of the white-shoe financial institutions.

As is my wont, we talked about corporate politics. I’d had a dinner the previous evening with another friend, discussing one of his key hires who was undermining him.. It reminded my coffee partner of one incident with a ‘snake in the grass’. I’ll let him tell the story…

“There was this young guy who worked for me, very bright, very ambitious, but as you know, all i-bankers are, and managing them was never easy, all “A” types. This guy, however, had real star potential. He also had a very tight relationship with my boss, whom he knew before he took the job with my team. I knew they were close, but never bothered by it.

He was doing a pretty good job, and I had no large issues with him—until I found out on day that he was in one of our other regional offices, walking around with a clipboard and advising everyone of a restructure-and top of the list was that I was being made redundant!

After I found out, I called my boss, and said:

‘I’m firing him within 24 hours. The only way I won’t fire him is if you fire me first.’ And boy, was he furious.”

“Furious with this guy?” I asked.

“No, furious with me. He told me it would be a mistake, made all sorts of excuses on his behalf, that he didn’t mean it, that he was valuable to me, to him, to the bank, he needed more time to grow, and so on. Not a happy boss, for sure.

But to his credit, he didn’t stand in my way. And the guy was gone within a day. It could have been me too, I suppose, although not likely, but who knows. When you have to fire someone in those circumstances, the chances are in their heart of hearts they know what’s coming anyhow.”

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Jack Welch was famous for saying, “If you see a snake in the grass, kill it.” One does not stand there waiting to be bitten. You go after the threat and deal with it as it is, not hoping to wish it away.
(And let’s assume the threat is manageable, which it often is. I am dealing with another ‘snake’ issue right now, where people are scared of revealing the snake for what it is; venomous and considered dangerous. Such a situation is often solved by a group courageous enough to surround the snake; one person is seldom equipped to fight such a fight..)

In the work-place, some are paralyzed by fear, worried of the consequences from a strong or quick action against another. But when there is a snake lurking close by–whether a boss, peer or subordinate, one should not be scared to act, especially if there is an ethical breach.

As my friend concluded, “The very worst my boss could have done was fire me. And if he had, so be it. Wouldn’t have killed me.” But the snake would have..

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