The Rescue Syndrome

CEOs seem to have an innate desire to do what we can to save people from failing. Some of us aren't very good at it.

Maybe it’s a parental instinct and maybe it’s just because it makes us feel good. Most CEOs seem to have an innate desire to do what we can to prevent people from failing, or to help set them back on a course of success. I call it the “rescue syndrome” and am the first to admit—I’m not very good at it. You have your attempts, here are but two of mine.

1. His name was Vern. He was in charge of shipping and receiving and did a great job—when he was at work. He and I often bantered with each other during his many daily “paperwork” visits to the office. His attendance became more and more of a problem and we eventually confirmed that he had a serious drinking problem, fortunately never on the job, but unfortunately almost every weekend.

We didn’t have a formal HR department at the time so I took it upon myself to determine if there were positive steps we could take instead of simply firing the man for poor attendance. I called Al-Anon; they were very helpful, but also very realistic. They told me to give Vern the number for Alcoholics Anonymous, encourage him to call and not to throw him any lifelines.

As instructed, I sat with him, told him that another attendance miss would cost him his job and that if he had a drinking problem, to which he admitted, AA was a good place to seek help. I gave him their number asked him to keep it with him at all times. He took our conversation seriously. Sadly, in less than a week, he called me at home on a Saturday night. His speech was slurred and he told me that no one answered the number I had given him. He may have misdialed. I took his number, called AA and asked if they would call him.

He was a no-show the following Monday. Tuesday he called me said he had talked to AA and was planning on attending a meeting and then reluctantly asked if he still had a job. I told him he did not, he said he understood and we ended the call. Maybe four years later, on my way to an attorney’s office, I passed a man in a delivery uniform and we smiled at each other. It was Vern. He stopped, we talked for less than two minutes, he told me about his job and before we each went our separate ways he shook my hand, smiled and said: “Thanks.”

2. I had never done it before but when I got the call from a service organization regarding employment opportunities for parolees I decided to listen. The representative explained their goal of helping individuals reenter the community as productive citizens and the support provided to participating employers. Not to be taken lightly, I reviewed the request with our executive team and all were on board although in retrospect, some reluctantly so.

His name was Jimmy and he seemed like a nice enough guy though a bit shy and overwhelmed; easy enough to understand, he was coming into a culture that was highly energized. We got off to a good start. Jimmy always was on time in the morning, worked hard at his responsibilities, connected well with the employees and signed off with me at the end of each day when I would ask him, ‘how did it go today; are we doing everything we can to support you?’ Always the answer was “yes;” he felt “blessed.”

Early in December, some of those he was sitting with on break asked Jimmy if he had started his Christmas shopping (he had six kids). “No,” he said, “money is a little tight.” By noon, our family of employees had chipped in over $300 as a Christmas fund for him and asked if a few of them could take him to a nearby shopping mall that afternoon. The answer was an enthusiastic “yes” and they shared the joy with Jimmy. He was so affected by their generosity that he called his wife while they were all together; she cried, he cried—a moment to remember.

Winter weather set in and Jimmy’s 23 mile commute became more difficult. His car was an older model and not in good repair. His attendance began to slip, at first calling in with car trouble and arriving late, then trying public transportation and even riding with volunteer employees who lived nearby. By late January, he called in almost as often as he showed up for work and then, he stopped calling in at all. We all felt Jimmy had found a second family in us, but that he had yielded to other forces in his life. We never heard from him again.

Final score: an accidental “win” with Vern and one miserable loss with Jimmy.

As CEOs our education, training and experience prepare us to manage enterprises and even to rescue them when they falter. For most of us, nothing in those skill sets qualifies us to rescue individuals. As self-fulfilling as it may be for us to try, there is an endless list of far more qualified resources to do the rescue, starting with our HR professionals and supplemented by counseling services, community help agencies, clergy and medical specialists. Supporting these resources is a much more effective approach than thinking we can do it ourselves.

Lesson learned.

Fred Engelfried
Fred Engelfried is Director/Chair of North Coast Holdings, Inc. and its subsidiary Lewis Tree Service, Inc. He has been a member of the board of directors of Lewis for over 20 years, and for 10 years prior to that worked with the company intermittently in various consulting capacities. He also is President of Market Sense Inc., a participative management firm that has served more than 100 regional clients over 35 years.