The need to upgrade talent can create heart-wrenching decisions for even the most battle-hardened executives and small business owners these days, especially the firing of long-standing employees or partners who may have been critical to the development of the business, but who now appear to stand in the way of progress. But how do you as an executive/owner deal with this?
Pete Best is a mini-case study of how NOT to deal with it—especially if you're a small business. 1) Break the news to the partner through a third party. 2) Don't explain the reasons why the partner is being fired. 3) Don't ever speak to him again (even 45 years later). In this case, the firing became all the more significant to the individual because the small business went on to become a billion-dollar revenue producer.
I had the chance to chat with Pete Best three weeks ago, and he showed surprising equanimity—he certainly did not consider himself a victim. "It's fine—I moved on," he said, cheerfully commenting on his life since the Beatles. After raising a family as a civil servant in England, he eventually returned to playing the drums and is currently touring North America with the Pete Best Band, a very capable rock & roll unit. But to this day he doesn't know why he was suddenly dropped by the Beatles and replaced by Ringo, a few weeks before they recorded their first hit in England, "Love Me Do," in 1962. Despite Pete's 3 years of performing with the Beatles in Hamburg and Liverpool—and being a critical component of their distinct "wall of sound" rock & roll brand at the time—John Lennon, George Harrison, and Paul McCartney never spoke to him again, despite numerous opportunities to do so. The reason for his firing, according to most accounts, is that EMI recording engineers and producer George Martin thought Pete couldn't cut it in the recording studio. But engineer Norman Hurricane Smith, who was present for the Beatles' EMI audition, was adamant in his denial when he spoke to me in March: "We thought Pete had trouble getting the right beat for one particular song, but that certainly wasn't grounds for replacing him in the band." (After all, many drummers—including Ringo himself—were replaced by "studio musicians" on particular records.) Many other reasons have been cited—including jealousy by other band members that Pete got the lion's share of teen adulation—but the truth in such matters becomes more elusive with time.
If you ever have to deal with the firing of a partner or direct report, obviously you should communicate immediately and directly to the individual, and explain your reasoning in detail. And if you're the individual being terminated, you can aspire to display the grace and good spirit of Mr. Peter Best.