Over the summer, I finally started using the new fishing rod my wife purchased me as a Christmas gift. I’m not a skilled angler, and I’ll say honestly that the ratio of lost lures to caught fish is less than ideal. It’s not uncommon to feel my hook snag something on the bottom of the lake that is not a fish. I always get that sinking feeling that I’m not getting that hook back no matter how hard I reel.
A fishing pole is a fantastic representation of a small team. There are about half a dozen essential parts to the standard fishing pole – the handle, the reel, the rod, the line, the hook, and the bait. All of the parts are interdependent. To be effective, the reel must sit on the handle, the line must be secured to the reel and follow the guides on the rod, the hook must be attached to the line, and the bait must be attached to the hook. If any of those pieces falter, the other elements can no longer do their jobs effectively.
And there, on the shores of Lake Grapevine, my hook had let me down. It had done its job to some extent – it hooked something – just not what I hoped it would. No matter how hard I reeled, the line wouldn’t come back in. The force I was exerting through the reel was causing the handle to shake, the rod to bend, and the line to stretch to its breaking point.
What is a fisherman to do?
Cut the line. For the good of the other parts of the fishing pole, the only option was to cut the line and leave the hook in the water.
And so it is with small teams
In previous Team Room blogs, we’ve defined a “small team” as between five and nine people and acknowledged that those people are all interdependent – just like the fishing pole. That means that for the team to operate at its maximum capacity, all team members are expected to perform their roles to the best of their ability. This ensures two equally important outcomes; one, that each member contributes in a mutually beneficial way, and two, that the other parts of the team can operate because of the inputs of their teammates.
But sometimes, someone doesn’t pull their weight. When that happens, it quickly limits the capabilities of other team members to perform their roles effectively. When that fishing hook got stuck on the bottom of the lake, the different parts of the fishing pole stopped being effective – I couldn’t use the reel, and the rest of the fishing pole was nothing more than a stick. When one team member stops contributing, it doesn’t just stop their outputs – it can bring the entire team to a grinding halt.
Cutting the line is tricky. It should rarely be the first response to an issue. But when it becomes clear that that hook isn’t going to become un-stuck, no matter how hard your reel, there’s only one solution that preserves the rest of the pole. There isn’t one “right” way to do this, but there are some better ways than others. Consider the following:
- Don’t jump straight to letting a team member go. Make a concerted effort to identify their shortcomings, analyze root causes, and set a plan (with a timeline) on improving.
- On the opposite end of the spectrum, don’t wait too long. If one team member is a net negative on the rest of the team for too long, their negative impact may spread even further.
- We all have personal lives, and no matter how hard we try to separate them from our professional ones, they often cross over. See if there are personal matters that need to be addressed and how you can help.
- Your team is watching how you do this. Take every measure to ensure you remain professional and positive throughout the process. Leaders set the standard for professionalism.
When it’s time, cut the line.
After graduating from the Air Force Academy, Dan served for over five years as an officer in the elite Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) community. He served both as a Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) and as a Task Force Advisor on a 2018 deployment in support of Operation Inherent Resolve. His expertise in selecting, developing, and leading effective small teams stems from his experiences as an Air Force Special Warfare Officer, both in training and in combat.
Dan partnered with the Talent War Group (formerly EF Overwatch) in 2019 and now works as the Director of Sales for Kahn Mechanical Contractors in Dallas, Texas. Dan holds a Master of Arts degree in Strategic Leadership from Saint Bonaventure University. He is passionate about mental health advocacy for the veteran community.