Downs Book CoverPaul Downs started making custom furniture in 1986, shortly after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in engineering. Downs has only one line on his résumé, but he has a wide variety of skills gained in twenty-five years of running his business. His clients range from individuals and small businesses to Fortune 500 companies, all branches of the military, and foreign governments. A regular contributor to both Forbes and the New York Times, Downs lives with his wife and three sons outside of Philadelphia. His latest book, Boss Life: Surviving My Own Small Business, was a Forbes Best Book of the Year and Winner of 8CR Award.

I sincerely appreciate that Paul Downs pulled time away from his business and family to answer some questions for us. First-line supervisors have tough jobs and often little training. I expect that Paul’s comments will resonate with many and hopefully provide insight and new approaches. Paul also demonstrates a level of sharing and vulnerability that we can all strive to duplicate in our lives.

Axtell: Paul, you wrote: “You can’t understand a boss without knowing what he goes home to.” Please share more of your thinking about this.

Downs: You can evaluate a boss with objective metrics: growth, profit, whatever you can measure. And that may be enough. If you want to get a better sense of how someone operates and why they are the way they are, you need to look deeper. Who is that person? Why do they do what they do? Were they born that way or are they reacting to circumstances? And what are the circumstances? Are they only work events or is there more?

Ideally, the time spent away from work gives the boss an opportunity to rest and prepare for the next challenge. However, that’s not guaranteed. Personally, I found that having a special needs child led me to decide not to work long hours and to make sure I didn’t arrive home with my batteries completely discharged. That undoubtedly had an effect on the growth and success of my company.

Axtell: Paul, these three sentences struck me in one part of your book.

  • The day you have children, you enter a different world.
  • Every couple has a fight that just keeps coming back.
  • Keeping a barrier between work and home was a mistake.

How do you see these statements being related, and what did you learn from this?

Downs: There’s nothing unusual about these statements other than that they appeared in a business book. The first two are simply self-evident truth. If you are in a relationship and have had kids, you don’t need any further explanation. And if you aren’t and don’t, now you know what to look out for.

The last statement, that keeping the things that happened to me at work hidden from my wife and children, was a mistake for me. I’m not sure that this is the best approach for all people. If I had been capable of forgetting the stresses of work when I crossed my threshold each day, things might have worked out differently. As it happened, my family lived for years with a man who, on occasion, was upset, distant, and prone to sudden explosion for no apparent reason. Later they got a man who still exhibited those faults and was willing to share the reasons why, and assured his loved ones that they were not at fault. I found that providing a summary of my day, good or bad, allowed me to be a better father.

Axtell: Where does your best thinking occur…on your bike…elsewhere?

Downs: It can happen anywhere, really. My bike ride to work is especially nice because it’s a very low-traffic, flat, easy route. That’s a good time to let my mind wander. But I’m thinking of business problems all the time, and good ideas pop up in a variety of situations.

Axtell: What does a good boss do when an employee underperforms?

Downs: A good boss sets clear expectations from the beginning. When those aren’t met, I first ask myself what I did to contribute the problem. Have I provided the proper tools to do the job? The proper materials to work with? And does the employee have all of the information they need to succeed? Those things are my responsibility, and if an honest analysis reveals that I failed, I correct the situation.

When I’ve done what I should have, then I start with a discussion with the employee. They usually know that they have been underperforming, but sometimes they have no idea. I review the expectations with them and give them a chance to provide an explanation. I make it clear that excuses are interesting, but don’t absolve them of the need to do their job.

If a verbal warning doesn’t work, I have developed a procedure that serves as a formal warning to the employee. I write down what the problem is, examples of when and how it occurred, how this violates our company policies, what would constitute a correction of the behavior, and what the consequences are for failure to correct the problem. I get a witness and bring the employee into my office for a formal review of this document. This tends to be a very scary experience for the employee, which is what I want. Good workers straighten up. Bad workers either quit or have been given notice of the consequences of their actions. If they continue to underperform, I fire them. I make sure that the firing is done the same way: with a written description of the problem, with a chance to respond, but with the final consequence already determined.

Our employee manual has a list of behaviors that will lead to instant firing. When I’ve had to do that, I still go through the procedure: written description and meeting with witness. Sometimes I film the meeting.

None of this is fun, and describing it is a lot easier than doing it. Disciplinary meetings are the worst things I have to do as a boss. However, I believe that the procedure is fair to everyone: to the employee involved, to the company, and especially to the other workers. Bad colleagues make good employees feel bad. The boss owes it to those who are doing a good job to have the guts to discipline underperformers and get rid of people who aren’t working out.


Part II of this interview will be posted Wednesday, January 10.

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