One of My Costliest Leadership Mistakes

There is an exception to every rule. We think we are it. Or at least I did.

For years I heard the adage, “Never hire family or friends.” Sounds like a good rule. But I didn’t really believe it. Until I broke it.

I was pastor of a church trying to attract new people. We were reaching younger adults and wanted to take it to the next level by starting a new worship service that would serve their specific needs. I recruited several people from the congregation to help. Enthusiasm built and soon the new service was accomplishing its purpose. One of the guys I recruited to help, who I will call Sam, was all in from the beginning. He went the second mile to help and made sure we had what we needed. It was a successful launch. Sam and I became fast friends and I enjoyed spending time with him. We seemed to have a lot in common. I liked working with him on the service.

Soon after, I was chosen to lead a different congregation in a different city. It was a similar situation with church leaders who wanted to expand and try new things. A new service was planned. I thought, “who better to help here than Sam?” Can you see where this is going?

Sam and his wife moved and was hired part-time at the church to help get the service off the ground. That’s when the dynamic changed. Sam went from volunteer and friend to co-worker and supervisee. Sam soon lost his motivation for the service. I found myself having to remind him of deadlines. I had to prod to meet goals we had set. I saw his attitude change. I called in all of my “friendship chips” to get him to perform. None of it worked.

Over the years, I discovered that non-profit leadership requires a little more finesse than for-profit leadership. There is more “leverage” in a for-profit company because you can let an employee go who doesn’t match the company’s needs. How do you let a friend and church member go without doing damage? It can be very complicated as roles clash.

Sam was feeling the need to try other things at other churches. So, we had what author Henry Cloud calls a “necessary ending.” Sam went his way and I went mine, but not on good terms.

Here’s what it cost:

  • My friendship with Sam. We never spoke again.
  • Leadership credibility with the church who trusted me to make a wise hiring decision.
  • The church lost thousands of dollars and 2 years of time when Sam’s departure put us back to square one.

Here’s what I gained:

  • A new appreciation for the complexities of hiring staff. I heard Hall of Fame, Super Bowl winning and NASCAR owner Joe Gibbs say that recruiting and hiring is one of his toughest jobs because even with all of the pre-hiring testing and interviews, you never know what you are getting until the person performs.
  • Grace from church leaders. They forgive my mistake and I was able to build trust again. We hired a new person with a different skill set. The service we started is still going strong.

Yes, it cost me as a leader. But it also sharpened my hiring skills just a little bit. In the future, I will make wiser hiring choices.

I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences!

What have you learned from hiring mistakes or others as a leader?

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