Case Study: Told my first coaching client “Fire me!”

My first ever “coaching client” was my dad. I told him to fire me. Have a second full-time sales person. We needed to get someone who had been a mechanic, who was a great people-person, and train them how to do the accounts job I was doing.

My first coaching client was my dad. I told him to fire me.

I should say “client” in quotations because really I was his employee, but this was the earliest manifestation of my affinity for planning and coaching (‘consulting’ I guess is more correct in this case). This is the story of my dad’s family business, and my first job.

Once upon a time…

…Shortly after I was born, in fact, my dad and uncle started a trade selling car parts to local garages. My dad’s whole family are big gear-heads. I did not inherit this, nor a head for engineering (one of my brothers did though). A few years later my uncle left the business to work more directly (physically, as a restorative mechanic) on cars so then it was just my dad in charge.

When we were kids, my two younger brothers and I would be asked to help out occasionally. Many months we’d be given a few pounds to put hundreds of customer statements into envelopes and stamp them. When we were older, we’d help stock-take as Summer jobs, and the Summer that I finished school, I was trained how to do the bookkeeping (and produce the aforementioned statements. How far I’d come…). This became my first real part-time job during my 3 years in University College Dublin, studying for a Bachelors of Commerce degree.

My job title was “accounts”, but seeing as how there were less than 4 employees most of the time, everyone did a bit of everything, so I’d sell car parts too. Basically if the phone rang and someone asked for sales, the other guy (let’s call him Bill) would take it. If the second phone rang while Bill was on the first, suddenly I was sales, but if the question was overly technical or it wasn’t a day-to-day part, I’d usually have to take a message and let Bill or my dad get back to them. This is just how small/family businesses tend to be, I guess.

I dreaded the days when my dad was on the road (as our rep, two days a week) and Bill would call in sick, because not only would I be likely run off my feet answering two phones and dealing with drop-in customers, deliveries, and outbound orders, but my acute lack of mechanical knowledge would really start to show on these days, and I’d have to take notes, ring around, and “get back to you on that” for something that Bill would have known instantly. Sales would slow, customers would get frustrated, and business would suffer. It was just an objective truth that I couldn’t handle the sales end without some serious training. I also just wasn’t that interested in cars. They had no part in what I wanted to do, which at that time looked to be running an events company.

In short, to be part of this small business, it really would have paid to have spent some time working as a mechanic first. Every few weeks we’d seem to be playing catch-up, instead of ever getting ready to grow or expand. But this all didn’t seem to matter too much until the Recession hit!

A Downturn for the Worse!

In the Summer of 2008, the Recession officially came to Ireland. I remember hearing the news report announcing this quite well. It came on the same day that I got the results for my final exams. I thought “I hope this won’t affect me too much”… yeah…

Now finished with college, I was looking around for jobs in my desired field(s), but none were to be found, so I stayed where I was. I switched to full-time hours at first, which allowed Bill and my dad to focus a bit more on business, but a Volkswagen strategic decision (to not allow Main Dealers to purchase parts from 3rd party suppliers like ours) was a major hit to our business. 

As financial hardship began to set it around the country (and the world), people were repairing their cars less frequently, and as our customers were feeling the pinch, so soon were we. It took longer and longer to get paid, and in turn we had to stretch out payment to our suppliers as long as possible, risking going on-stop at times. This is where I learned first hand how a company can have a strong balance sheet, but still die on its cash flow.

In my accounts role, I watched month on month as our average bank balance slowly but surely fell, eventually beginning to creep into Overdraft most months, until we basically lived there. This was all against a backdrop of efforts to improve sales like being more proactive with finding new garages in the deep corners of the country, sourcing cheaper parts, building a website, etc. All things that (apart from the website, which didn’t help all that much, since our customers were 90% regulars) I couldn’t help with as I couldn’t speak to mechanics on their level. 


Morbidly, one thing did help us survive longer here.

Our van driver, let’s call him Charlie, a plump, hearty, ‘paddy hat’ wearing, gentle and generous old gent whom everyone loved was nearing retirement age. He’d worked for my dad for decades across multiple businesses. He was employed all week but really only needed to be there maybe 10 hours or less with the reduction in business. There was no way my dad was going to let him go (nobody was suggesting it, let’s be clear), but the business wasn’t getting its money’s worth from him any more.

His wife had died a couple years prior, and he lived to work, so nobody, least of all him, had any idea what he’d do when he retired. This is the kind of man who’d never left the country in his entire life (I think he told me he went on a foreign holiday once, but he didn’t like it). Anyway, one evening on his way home, a few months before retirement, Charlie pulled over to the side of the road with chest pains, and died minutes later just a couple of miles from his house.

We were all saddened. All of our local customers knew him well and many came to the funeral. It was a shock to me as I’d known him since I was a toddler, and thought of him as an uncle, but it really was one of those cases where people agreed he may have been better off. He’d have been miserable retired and alone.

Anyway, while Bill got a well-deserved raise after this, and I worked a few more hours to cover the odd collection or delivery (I was part time again at this stage), we managed to save some salary costs from this, but were still on a downward trajectory with no improvement in sight.

The Plan

My dad had ideas on how to save the business, but was also keen to get input from us junior staff (a great Leadership trait – take note). So this is when I first really became involved in strategic business planning, with a company’s very survival actually hanging in the balance. No pressure. My dad’s ideas, all still useful, revolved around marginally reducing costs here, or pushing harder to sell our higher-margin parts, or re-engage with dormant customers.

We weren’t often that busy. Here’s a box fort we made once.

We really needed to make more sales though. What we needed was a second pro-active sales person who could bring money in and find new business. Bill was great at this, but he was only one man. My dad was having some health problems, and also his interest in the business seemed to be waning, so he wasn’t putting 40 hours in any more either.

He talked as well about moving the premises to a more visible location (we were extremely well-hidden in a private laneway and got no foot-traffic, though this was kind of a blessing, too).

My suggestion: Fire me!

The best answer seemed to be to clone Bill! Have a second full-time sales person. We needed to get someone who had been a mechanic, who was a great people-person, and train them how to do the accounts job I was doing. That way all the company admin would still be taken care of, but we’d always have someone available to be selling, and could probably put another rep on the road to find new business. A couple of new big accounts was all we really needed, though big accounts are hard to find since the franchised main dealers weren’t allowed to buy from us any more, and the independent garages were having a hard time of the recession, too.

So we put out an ad and eventually found a local guy who’d been a mechanic, and was keen to do an accounts + sales role. I trained him up on the accounts. I’d trained both of my brothers at different times (to cover me on Summer holidays or whatever), and had trained Bill on the accounts too, so I was used to having to be really clear, have them take notes, and expect to have to repeat a few things. I did have to repeat some things, but he seemed able to get the job done.

I did notice one disturbing trait, though. He wouldn’t really accept responsibility for making a mistake. It would usually be that “you didn’t tell me that”. But I’m someone who takes excessive responsibility, and if I’m the trainer it is my job to make sure that the message is received correctly, so I just took that as meaning that I hadn’t been clear enough.

Anyway, I’d signed up to do a Sound Engineering course that started in September 2010 (to help in my music/events direction). So I finished training the new guy just in time, and left the business to start on its new direction, while I finally started mine.

So much for that…

I still lived at home, so of course I was on hand to answer clarifying questions through my dad, or even drop into the shop if needs be the odd time. I began hearing how New-Guy wasn’t working out though. My dad seemed to have taken a dislike to him. If I remember correctly, it usually revolved around having to repeat himself to New-Guy excessively, or things not getting done as he expected them done.

So I mentioned how New-Guy wasn’t great at admitting if he’d gotten something wrong? Well, my dad has a very low tolerance for bullshit (namely ‘excuses’, or especially ‘lies’). Turns out those two personalities don’t mix well together. They were quickly finding themselves in daily arguments. My dad’s fuse may have been a little shorter due to the stress of this new business plan needing to work out, but to be fair, there’s little more annoying than someone who blames others for their mistakes.

Well, after just a couple of months, New-Guy was fired. I’m not fully sure what happened, but according to Bill, the guy really wasn’t what we’d hoped at all. My dad asked me to come back part-time. I was able to do this even with my course and still have free time to run events, but it left the company no better off (and I had to give up on learning the piano). I was only working 6 hours a week at this stage (it’s all that was needed of me). Things were bad.

Funny enough, my girlfriend at the time had known of New-Guy before we hired him, and she did not recommend him, but all the other references checked out and he was the best candidate so we went with it (we did seriously need to roll the dice).

The following year I finished my course and, seeing continuing disimprovements in the economy, I moved to Australia with said girlfriend. I trained my youngest brother in to replace me as he was now in college. The business was no better or worse off, but I’d have a chance to finally spread my wings a bit, and my brother would have some income to fund his college life.

The end of the story

Street art in Adelaide, SA, that reminded me of the old job, since VW Beetles were a big part of my dad’s early business.

This was about my own experience in that family business, and that part of the story really ends there, but for the sake of completion:

When Plan A hadn’t worked out, they all decided to move premises up to a more visible part of the town. It was a big decision with a lot of literal heavy lifting involved (thankfully I was gone at this stage), but it was taking action, and that’s what mattered. Giving the business a chance.

Unfortunately, my dad had a major health scare which took him away from the business for several crucial weeks. Most of our customers only paid when he’d call around the country on the road as our rep, so money wasn’t coming in those weeks. This stressed him further and left us in a worse position. I was back from a year in Australia at this stage and, while not involved in the business, was still happy to look at the numbers, and offer advice. I’d to talk to the Tax Man (who we were now on a first name basis with) as well. Things were grim. My advice (for a long time now) was to shut down the business. It was eating into my dad’s life savings with no sign of turning around.

A few months later he had a second major health scare and the move in premises hadn’t much improved things, so as a family we all decided it would be best to shut it down. Bill was a real asset and had no trouble finding work with our competitors. My youngest brother graduated with a business degree in 2013, when institutions were finally hiring graduates again. He’s never been a day unemployed in his life and has had 5 or 6 really good jobs in as many years.

Retirement suits my dad down to the ground, and his health is doing really well, thank God! And me? Well, I’ve worked in 8 industries in 10 years, am no stranger to being laid off, but have circumnavigated the world, studied tax, taught myself to program, started a games company, worked for the guy who made Doom and Quake, and am now a business coach. Go figure.

In Conclusion

So, at the tender age of 21, I’d my first real exposure to strategic planning for a small business, and to consulting/coaching. Even then, I knew that Movement Beats Meditation, meaning that we couldn’t just make incremental changes and hope, or spend excessive time “wait and see”-ing. We were in trouble and we had to decide on an action plan and just take the chance.

My move to Australia was another drastic action necessitated by circumstance. As hard as I find it to believe now, I truly never wanted to go to Australia at the time. It just seemed the best move for myself and my girlfriend then. Sometimes a risky action is just what it takes. Although, it’s nicer when the downside isn’t so drastic as my first experiences were, and nicer still the times it works out. This just wasn’t one of those times. It’s a real story. Businesses fail.

I also was willing to admit when I was the problem and get out of the way, even if it meant a lower standard of living for myself. I think this is an important skill to have, and I’m sure to have my clients reflect on this in their own situations to see if it rings true.

This post was a bit long in the tooth, but if you’re interested in my time in Australia, my tax-studying history, or how I got into games, see this post on my old games website. If you’d like to know how it worked out with that girlfriend or why I got out of my games company, see this follow-up post.

Thanks so much for reading. Do please leave a comment if you got some value out of this.

Talk to you soon…

8 thoughts on “Case Study: Told my first coaching client “Fire me!””

  1. Great blog Kevin, thanks for sharing your story. I have some questions in regards to your mindset when making that decision to fire yourself and hire a brand new team member. I noticed you did say that you were “just not that interested in cars” or making sales and you were more interested in leaving and doing your own projects rather than staying in the family business, which is fair enough for someone so young. So I am genuinely interested to know from a business point of view what was the strategy or mindset that helped you decide that taking a massive risk and hiring someone new (who unfortunately turned out not to be a good fit in terms of alignment with core values, which was apparent from the beginning) rather than retaining an existing team member (you) and offering them the chance to upskill and diversify their skill set, even if only for a short term basis until things improved? I’d love to have more insight into your amazing strategizing brain!

    1. Haha. Thanks for the compliment Johanna 😛
      Well, if I’m honest, I think first and foremost I just wanted to leave sooner rather than later, and this was a good catalyst. I’d been there years longer than desired already, and knew it wouldn’t be for me.

      But from my dad’s (or any owner/manager’s) point of view, it’s important to build cohesive and motivated teams that work well together. Salaries and usually the single biggest expense in most businesses, and you want to get the most bang for your buck there, not paying people who aren’t excited to be there.

      There’s a term I hear a lot that goes “hire slow, fire fast”. Tech firms in particular are obsessed with not bringing negative energy into their teams. Good teams will grow a business together. A couple of bad apples (people who just aren’t the right fit either for motivation or skill – so, me in that business) can really drag the whole business down.

      Richard Branson says “take care of your staff, and they’ll take care of your business”. Amazon will actually pay you $5,000 just to quit, instead of staying there stagnant and costing them more than that in lost productivity.

      It’s quite a big deal to have the right staff motivated and rewarded correctly, especially where you only have 3 or 4 staff in the whole place.

      1. Oh thank you so much for such a quick reply, I appreciate that you’re probably very busy with coaching clients and all aspects of running a new business. Wow, that’s so interesting, I’d love to know, what would you say, or how would you coach someone who, perhaps a bit like yourself back then, was unmotivated and didn’t want to progress within their company? Especially in this bountiful (and thankfully recession free) day and age? And what would you to businesses nowadays in retaining their staff and ensuring they motivated and happy? Oh, and if you could go back in time what would you do differently to improve the hiring process, given that you now have so many skills?

        1. Well, if you’re talking about yourself personally, I’d say why not go to my contact page and set up a free discovery call with me so we can get specific? Absolutely no obligation to sign up for coaching, and I’d be pleased to chat to you.

          If you’re speaking more generally, assuming there’s no way forward in your present role, I would consider keeping the job you’re in while looking around for other opportunities. Maybe you start a side-business, study part-time, or just send a job application every day after work. You could go to a 4 day week and study/work one day.

          Most definitely start to talk to new people and learn new things. Those are really the only 2 ways that we create opportunities to change our lives. Go to conferences, open days, talks, or just networking events around what it is that you want to do, if you know what that is. If you don’t, just get out more generally and talk to people to see what they do. Keep an open mind and inspiration will strike.
          Other part of your question, to advise companies on how to keep their staff, they should hire me to consult 🙂 But mainly they should be aware of what their workers want. Variety and a sense of purpose are bigger nowadays. Respect for the workers has always been essential. Good working conditions, competent leadership who DEMONSTRATE that they care about the employees’ careers, etc. There’s a lot to this, of course.
          And how would I have improved the hiring process back then?… Maybe we would have used a recruiter. We did the ‘local paper’ / ‘local jobs board online’ approach I think and had to answer/review all the applications ourselves (then again, we had that kind of free time), and probably didn’t check references well enough. As I said, my girlfriend knew the guy and didn’t recommend him on a personal level, but didn’t know much of his work. Maybe we would have caught red flags from other employers, or a recruiter would have been more thorough. It’s hard to say. It’s impossible to 100% avoid personality clashes like that, but nowadays companies are deliberately taking longer to hire, using multiple interview stages, and also using AI to sift through applicants.
          If we were hiring for that job today I’d use an AI-assisted recruiter to cast a wider net and whittle it down more finely. There was too much human error involved when we did the recruiter ourselves, I guess.

  2. Oooh! I have one more question, if you don’t mind that is (I just love getting to know the inner workings of successful people’s brains). It seems that there was a closed mindset culture surrounding your team member Charlie, and under utilization of his time and skills. In the face of taking action and making changes to save the company, was it not an option to motivate him into learning new skills? Especially since you mentioned how loyal, hard workable and likeable he was (dream team member attributes!) ? As you would know that when you have a small team, it’s vital to maximize your productivity of all team members and one small criticism would be that this was an opportunity missed, as I’m sure you realise now with expertise in productivity. Such a tragic story and I’m sorry about the circumstances that he passed away. Once again great blog and I look to reading more.

    1. Sure, I don’t mind another question. It’s nice to get talking to readers. Again, thanks for the compliment. I’m not sure “successful” can be applied just yet (this business is about 6 weeks old right now), but “driven” certainly can.

      You’re right about getting the most out of people, for sure. “Charlie” was being wasted a little bit, for sure, but it was more a human relationship consideration than a business decision that kept him around – since he was not long until retirement and had worked with my dad for decades.
      There really wasn’t much for him to bother learning, since the rest of the staff were also underworked at this time. That said, if I recall correctly he was given the task of inventorying some really old “dead stock” (mostly for classic VW Beetles) to see what we had and if it could be sold on eBay or whatever. But this was a man who was never going to really learn to use a computer in the last few months of his career. He was a van driver, and pretty locked into that identity.

      It’s interesting because about 15 years later now, we’re seeing that a lot of older workers, especially in transport, are going to have to reskill or face unemployment or early retirement because of self-driving cars, automation, AI, etc – that just wasn’t really something Charlie himself ever had to deal with. Perhaps sheer necessity will help people like him to reskill nowadays, but there was just no real reason or time for Charlie to do it.

      1. Thanks for the reply again! I’ve read a bit about AI it’s so interesting! On the topic of jobs being replaced by AI have you heard about ‘Executive Coach Amanda’? What do you think of the idea that business coaching can be replaced by a robot?

        1. Funny, I mentioned AI in my reply to your other question. It seems to be everywhere nowadays.
          I hadn’t heard of Amanda but just read up on it. Thanks for the info.

          It seems useful as a recommendation engine for articles, or pre-defined processes and steps to take when a problem is well-defined. So it has a use. I can do that. Amanda could do that more cheaply, I’m sure – at least ultimately.

          But one of the key things that a coach does, that only a human can do, is to provide an accountability buddy / mentor/ COACH role. We do 77% better at achieving our goals when we tell someone about them and they keep us accountable. The AI could even be programmed to nag us, but we know it doesn’t care. There’s a very human force at play when a coach works with somebody and is ACTUALLY invested (financially and emotionally) in their success. An AI could only fake that part of the job, and we’d know it’s fake. It just wouldn’t work the same way.

          Also, humans learn well through examples and stories with emotion. The benefit of the real-world experience of your mentor can’t be replicated either I think.
          Maybe the degree to which that’s true would vary depending on the topic, but I find it hard to imagine taking dating advice from an algorithm that doesn’t understand the emotions involved, n’est pas? It could approximate, and give some useful advice/articles, but it can’t intuit what you’re feeling I don’t think. Even if it could, I doubt we’d feel listened to/understood, and that’s really what human beings are looking for.

          AI will be an interesting development for sure. It’s all up in the air, but I think the coaching jobs are a bit safer for now than the admin/reception jobs, let’s say.

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