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A Lesson from the Comey Firing

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The firing of FBI director James Comey by president Trump is the biggest story of the week. Most of the focus has been on the constantly changing rationale for the termination. The television networks have been filling the airwaves with a variety of reasons for the firing. The various spokespeople including the president, VP, and assistant communications director have stumbled badly in telling a coherent, consistent and honest story.

Director Comey has been accused of being a “showboat” and “grandstander,” that “the FBI was in turmoil,” and that he was not doing a good job. Of course, one of the major issues behind this firing was clearly that Mr. Comey was leading the investigation into the possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

The director was in the third year of a ten-year term. According to the acting FBI director, in his testimony to Congress on Thursday, Mr. McCabe stated that director Comey had been highly respected throughout the agency.

There is no question that director Comey was a controversial figure. The Hillary Clinton e-mail server situation was a huge problem to the Democrats in 2016, possibly shifting the election at the last minute in favor of Mr. Trump. Then Comey mentioned in a public briefing to Congress earlier this year that he was investigating the links between the Trump team and Russia. In other words, he was investigating his new boss. This is not a winning strategy for job security unless the incoming administration has nothing to hide.

Lost in the smokescreen of changing storylines, misstatements and distractions was a key piece of the narrative. Director Comey learned of his firing from a TV monitor that flashed the announcement while he was speaking to a group of FBI employees in California. What a cruel, mean-spirited and humiliating circumstance under which to lose your job! In fact, what could be worse than receiving a public firing in front of people with whom you have worked for decades?

This is not the only firing that has been done without any finesse or sensitivity. I am aware of an executive fired via phone call while on a European family vacation. It is sad to see people treated in such a cowardly and unprofessional manner. 

What makes the Comey firing different from other firings is how it was done and by whom. Director Comey was fired by the most high profile person in the world. Only one other FBI director has ever been fired in U.S. history. There is no evidence that director Comey committed an illegal act or was not competent. Why fire an FBI director in the middle of a major investigation (into the performance of the person and team to whom he reports)? What could be more suspicious than that?

Was it absolutely necessary to terminate director Comey at the very minute he was addressing his staff? Why couldn’t he have been fired upon his return to Washington? The termination delivers a message of a president who had a personal vendetta with director Comey, who acted in an erratic, fearful and thoughtless way. What message does this give to other members of his staff and to employees in other organizations?

The FBI director serves at the discretion of the president. The president has the right to fire this individual as he or she see fit.

Thankfully, as we all know, there are processes and procedures for dealing with poor performance in many professionally run organizations. First, the employees should have attainable goals that are tied to specific metrics. Second, employees are expected to received performance appraisals. Third, if a staff member receives a substandard performance appraisal, the individual is expected to be given mutually agreed upon goals and an opportunity to correct his or her performance. One could argue that senior government posts are different. The individuals given these jobs have extensive track records with many years of leadership experience. There is no time for hand-holding at this level.

One could also argue that many individuals given cabinet level appointments are often political appointees and do not a have record of achievement in a particular area. Look at the postings given to people like Dr. Ben Carson and Betsy Devos. What does Dr. Carson know about the housing sector?

The point is that how leaders hire, manage, and sometimes terminate employees is very important to the organization. These activities have a direct impact on morale and performance. The nasty and slipshod way this firing took place may cause a constitutional crisis in the United States, particularly since president Trump and his team seem incapable of communicating a consistent story.

The key lesson we should take away from this mess is that people in positions of authority should be much more thoughtful, deliberate, fair-minded and knowledgeable as to how to recruit, manage and dismiss their most valuable resources, their people. The Comey firing will leave a stain on the entire Trump presidency. In fact, it may ultimately lead to his departure.

 

To stay up to date on Best Practices in Freight Management, follow me on Twitter @DanGoodwill, join the Freight Management Best Practices group on LinkedIn and subscribe to Dan’s Transportation Newspaper (http://paper.li/DanGoodwill/1342211466).

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Guest Monday, 21 August 2017

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