My friend Dottie Deremo, the CEO of Hospice of Michigan, said to me on Friday, “Repotting is hard.” She was talking about how Jennifer and our kids and I were going through a big transition, removed from the garden of government service. Lover of metaphors, and loser of hearing, I asked quizzically, “Repotting?” “Repotting,” she repeated. “You’ve gotten pulled up and your roots are exposed to shock, but as you get repotted in new soil you’re going to grow in amazing ways.” I had heard her right. I love her metaphor.
Kent Lineback, a very smart friend, argues in Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader, a new book that’s fast-climbing the leadership lists – and in this brief article at Fortune’s website, that bosses just should not be friends with their people. To extend Dottie’s metaphor and one of Kent’s points: As boss, you’re the gardener, not a fellow plant. I differ with Kent in some ways, but that’s a full discussion for another day. On one point I sing full-throated from his musical score. He and his co-author Linda Hill argue that when you become friends with your reports, you may hesitate to prune their leaves or trim their branches, and you may delay or refuse to do what may be vital for the welfare of the garden; namely, uproot them from your team or organization.
My friend “Joe” is anguishing right now in just such a garden. His company has been acquired, and his team’s function is no longer necessary. He has succeeded in “repotting” three-quarters of his people in other places in and outside the company. But some he could not save and instead had to uproot last week. I don’t know if they were all “friends.” They were certainly much more friends than say most “Facebook friends,” as Joe deeply and actively cared about them as people. Perhaps he would say some were friends in the full sense of that word. But, as their manager, he had to pull them up from their roots. And he felt the shock with them. God bless his big heart.
I shared these thoughts with him: Joe, they are lucky to have such an empathetic boss, but remember, you are not the whole earth to them. You tend a garden. You have uprooted them with as much care as one could hope for and looked for plots of land where they might survive or thrive. I said one more thing to Joe, because I share Dottie’s view: although there is likely shock to the roots, re-potting may be just what they need. Their roots may be much better suited to some other environment where they will thrive. It may take a while to find the right soil and sunlight, but they may grow stronger and more fruitful somewhere else. I think a good boss never loses sight of their responsibility to make the garden yield, but the great boss is a friend to their people in the hardest times, acting with empathy and proactively trying to help them to repot, so that boss and employee can each:
Lead with their best self.