I ran into an old friend recently with whom I had worked several years ago. He was the designer and engineer at the small company, and I was the plant manager. I remembered Earl being one of the most competent designers I have ever met. I also remembered him as being cooperative and open to suggestions and ideas from others, including shop-oriented people — something not too common in the engineering world.

When I asked him how he was doing and how things were going at The Bilkins Corp. (not the real name), he told me he was no longer with the company. I was surprised because I had thought that after being with it for more than 21 years, he was sort of part of the furniture, so to speak. I asked him why he was no longer there, and he replied, “Incompetence and insubordination.”

It made me think about how things change over time and how someone who is a superstar one month can suddenly become worthless, uncooperative and even insubordinate the next. I don’t believe that for a minute, even though I’ve seen it seem to happen too many times.

An employee — but this happens with friends, relatives, co-workers, customers, suppliers, contractors and many other people-to-people relationships — starts out doing wonderful, creative work and everyone has nothing but praise and admiration for him or her. Things go along fine for a while, maybe even years. And then something changes. Certainly it could be the employee who changes for any number of reasons — health issues, divorce, a death in the family, boredom, resentment, you name it. But the truth is that it could be that the problem lies in the other court.

The employer may have changed procedures, changed the compensation schedule, hired a new supervisor, reduced the work force — any of which could surely affect the employee’s situation, and just as surely, his or her attitude toward the company.

That’s when things go sour and the employee and the employer “fall out of love.”

It happened to me at a company I was with for eight years. For seven and a half years, “I could do no wrong.” The owner and I saw eye-to-eye on almost everything. I handled almost the entire business operation, and I made a lot of money for the company. Then suddenly over a period of just a month or so, the owner’s attitude toward me began to chill. The difference in our relationship was clearly different, and I no longer felt trusted or respected.

To this day I have no idea what caused the change. Perhaps someone made a negative remark about me. Perhaps I annoyed one of our suppliers and he complained to the owner. I never did find out, and it was fairly soon after that I left to join another company (for more pay and a better opportunity).

Interestingly, after I left, the owner hired a man who was a friend of his to replace me. The guy lasted about four months while the company almost immediately started losing money. After he was fired the company went through a long series of subsequent replacements. And then long afterward, I heard that the owner was constantly referring to me as the best manager he had ever had.

So when Earl told me he had been fired for “incompetence and insubordination,” I knew it was another case of things going sour.

— Paul Burri is an entrepreneur, inventor, columnist, engineer and iconoclast. He is not in the advertising business, but he is a small-business counselor with the Santa Barbara chapter of Counselors to America’s Small Business-SCORE. The opinions and comments in this column are his alone and do not represent the opinions or policies of any outside organization. He can be reached at pburri@west.net.