The Middle Manager

Surviving & Thriving as a Leader

A Little Squirrelly

I have a squirrel problem.  My family and I have been putting a lot of time and effort into our back yard.  It was a trouble spot for us, with a slope that caused water to pool in our patio, threatening to start seeping into our dining room.  So a couple months ago we had a landscaping company come in and level it for us, removing a tree and adding topsoil and grass seed to make it a bit more livable.  Once the grass started coming in I decided it would be nice to attract some colorful birds to the area, so I bought a pole with a couple shepherd’s hooks and added two bird feeders and a bird bath right in the center of the back yard.  

It took the neighborhood squirrels less than a day to discover it, but I thought since it was a slick metal pole they would have a hard time getting to the feeders.  And at first, that was true.  It was comical to see them leap onto the pole and slowly slide down.  Eventually, though, they figured it out and in no time there was a bushy squirrel tail squatting on the top of the pole chowing on my expensive bird seed.

So I went to my local Tractor Supply and bought a squirrel shield.  This is basically a metal cone that mounts on the rod to prevent the critters from shimmying up the pole.  It worked very well for about two days, then one morning I glanced outside and saw that bushy tail on the feeder again.  After a few hours of watching, I finally determined how the little guy was reaching it.  One of the squirrels – and I think it was only one – had figured out that if he climbed high enough in the orange tree adjacent to the feeder pole, he could make a huge leap and crash right into the top of the feeder, hanging on for dear life and reaping a reward of fresh bird seed.

There wasn’t much I could do about that, because I wanted to be able to see the birds through my patio doors, and moving the tree was impossible.  So I went searching for another means of prevention.  At the Tractor Supply store they sell a packet of capsaicin dust that can be mixed with the bird seed.  This doesn’t bother the birds, but for a mammal like a squirrel it would be like unexpectedly biting into a habanero pepper.  But that seemed a bit cruel, and honestly the initiative and creative thought the critters had put into reaching a nice meal was a bit inspiring.  And I thought that if I did add the hot peppers, one morning I’d simply see a bunch of squirrels wearing little sombreros, drinking cerveza and celebrating Cinco de Mayo while munching on the spicy bird seed!

There was a solution, which I’ll share shortly.

It’s an interesting story, but what does it really have to do with anything?  Well, as I watched these squirrels I realized as a group they correlated well with the employees we manage.  Over the years I’ve had the opportunity to manage a lot of people, and I’ve seen all kinds of personality tests, maps, and types.  But I think it really boils down to four things.

Like the one squirrel who took the time to puzzle things out, I’ve had employees who were innovators and creative thinkers.  They would take whatever time necessary to approach a problem from a number of different perspectives, and they just knew that they would eventually figure it out.  And they usually did, though in some cases I’ve had to put on a manager’s hat and tell them to move on.  Often this person takes on a leadership role within the team, and others use them as subject matter experts and seek them out for help when faced with a perplexing issue.

Some squirrels just sit and watch what the innovative, ‘leader’ squirrel is doing, and eventually just follow along in its footsteps.  They’ll follow the leader to the higher branches, but just can’t bring themselves to go all the way and make the final leap.  I’ve had employees who were solid, productive, even above-average performers who worked well with the team, but were reluctant to show initiative or actively looking for a better solution to a problem.  They will often watch the leader, or use him/her as a resource, but will rarely take the time to make the leap and try to puzzle things out for themselves.

Other squirrels don’t care to go out of their way to figure anything out.  They know that the feed will be shaken loose whenever the leader crashes into the feeder, or when birds are digging around for a morsel and knock seeds loose.  They sit on the ground below the feeder and pick up the stuff as it falls.  This is your employee who comes into work, does the job, and leaves for the day. They don’t put anything more into the work than they need to, they don’t really aspire to be anything more than what they’ve done yesterday or are doing today.  They can be good, average emloyees, but you can’t really count on them to do more than just what it takes to get by.

Finally, there were a few squirrels who gave a half-hearted leap at the pole, slid down, and then just sat on the ground looked dejected. Eventually, they wandered off, looking for easy pickings somewhere else.  Occasionally, you’ll have an employee like this.  They put only a half-hearted effort into doing the job, and are regularly in need to coaching and improvement.  With help, sometimes this type can be pushed into a routine, though often they either leave on their own or are managed out.

So to sum up, the four types:

  • Leader/Innovator
  • Follower
  • Routine worker
  • Non-performer


Would you add to this list?  Change anything?

And how did I ultimately solve my squirrel problem?  I gave up and bought a squirrel feeder and mounted it well away from the bird feeders.  That won’t stop the leaders, but it should reduce the amount of bird seed I have to buy!

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