Leadership Lessons from Squirrel Management

sqEach week, I go through 80 pounds of birdseed to feed my little feathered friends. And each week, the squirrels consume about 60 of those pounds.

Since it’s getting too expensive to meet the needs of the birds AND those long-tailed rodents…

I put the problem in my crosshairs.

I’m speaking figuratively, of course.

I added Cayenne pepper to my birdseed. Wouldn’t you know it, my squirrels actually seemed to like their food picante.

I installed squirrel baffles under the feeders and/or over the feeders. Houdini must have learned how to break out of handcuffs by watching squirrels. The bastards chewed through the baffles.

I went as far as to buy them squirrel food, an actual block of food made for crazy people who, for reasons unknown, wish to attract rodents to their yards. The squirrels ignored it in favor of the forbidden seed-of-the-gods.

The receipts on my desk for squirrel-management devices has crept up over $200; and I can’t even count the times I’ve stopped my work flow to get up, run outside, and yell at them, throw sticks near them, and reason with them. All to no avail.

And watching the squirrels overrun my backyard this morning, I came to a distressing conclusion:

I lost this little power-struggle.

Now here’s the real question: Are you doing similarly ineffective things with your squirrel employees?

During my years in leadership, I’ve learned that most leaders spend a disproportionate amount of resources dealing with squirrels (problem employees) instead of birds (superstars).

Ask yourself: Do you spend more time–

  • Listening to a complaining employees than brainstorming with great employees?
  • Correcting the same employees over and again than you do praising your superstars?
  • Coaching employees to improve their performance from bad-to-fair than you do in coaching your best employees to go from good-to-great?
  • Making excuses for the performance failures of some employees than you do shouting the successes of your bet-the-farm employees?

It’s time to become squirrel-free!

Count the real costs

Imagine the coldest Winder day while you enjoy a cup of coffee while sitting at the table. Next, picture opening every door and window in your house and keeping them open for a month. Finally, picture your blood pressure after you see your heating bill for that month.

Likewise, you’ll get the same chest pains when you add up the real costs racked up by your problem employees. You’ll quickly come to the conclusion that you’re wasting energy, burning out good employees, missing out on opportunities, and costing the company hard dollars by paying 100% of the salary of someone who gives you less than 100% of his or her best efforts.

Now you’re left with two choices: you can ignore the problem, or you can be a leader. You can’t do both. A true organizational leader is intolerant of squirrels.

Plot a Course of Action

I’ve coached leaders who’ve gotten so frustrated when they finally see the costs of their worst employees that they determine to execute them…or at least execute a sort of You’re fired! sequence.

Not so fast.

If employees have been able to keep their jobs for this long, understand that you and culture have allowed them to survive. Instead of going Rambo on them, take these progressive coaching steps to change the situation (i.e., meaning to terminate the behavior issue or performance problem).

Get support. Before taking a course of action that could lead down the path of “up to and including termination”, involve HR. Explain the situation and ask for suggestions. Once HR is behind you, make sure that your own boss is on board with your plan of action. Without this back-up, you might end up having to back-peddle faster than a politician in front of a hostile group.

Document everything along the way. Someone taught me this mantra early in my career: “If you didn’t document it, it never happened.” You can’t expect HR and your boss to support you if you haven’t taken very careful notes of the discussions between you and your employee.

Re-clarify your expectations. Call this “This is your final notice.” Be behaviorally specific about what you must see.

Outline the consequences. Spell out what the employee should expect for continued non-compliance. This way, there will be no unpleasant surprises.

Provide regular, ongoing feedback. Don’t wait for a big failure or a small success to provide feedback. Plan on meeting as often as it takes as a way of knowing if this employee can make it or not.

Execute. Once you’ve tried everything you can try, you will likely be left with 1 of 4 choices:

  1. Cut. If nothing you’ve done has been effective, cut your losses. It’s time to say goodbye.
  2. Quarantine. If you believe that the employee is salvageable based on some improvements, put the employee in a position where he or she will pose minimal risk to infecting others in a bad way.
  3. Coach. If you see improvement, double-down and keep coaching. You may have gotten through to him or her. Don’t stop just when you’ve turned the corner.
  4. Catapult. If you see a former squirrel employee do a 180, put that employee in a role where he or she can serve as a model for others to follow. I’ve spread contagious engagement more effectively by converting a naysayer and poor performer into a champion than I ever could have by putting a head on a pike, so to speak.


If you deal with your squirrels, you’ll have more energy, time, and money to maximize the employees you really wish to attract. And is there anything more satisfying than seeing an employee grow into a role to the point where he or she becomes one of your most desired employees?

Now as far as the real squirrels in my own backyard, I’ve decided follow a path of peaceful coexistence. For now…


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