This is an occasional series of posts on key attributes of successful leaders, gleaned from over a quarter century in executive search.
I’ve had the privilege of interviewing many very successful business people, as well as dealing with some whose careers had made detours that did or didn’t get back on the highway later. Some common attributes cut across company size, functional background, public or private company.
One that stands out: addressing under performers rapidly and decisively.
These days we’re all bombarded by the constant requirement to do more, faster, with less resources. As we approach warp speed, time to results is ever more important. Even beer companies are shortening the time to new flavors using AI (although I have a feeling that particular campaign may be as successful as Schlitz when they started using corn syrup). One of the top reasons companies retain an executive search consultant is to drive more rapid, profitable growth.
Yet we all too often see smart people getting off to a slow start in a new leadership role when it comes to one particular component of the job: addressing chronic under performers on their team.
Let’s look at why this matters.
Put succinctly, weakness in this area – even, or especially, when it’s mischaracterized as giving people another chance to turn things around – can be disastrous. Conversely, dealing with this issue head on as a first priority on entering a new role will accelerate results as much or more than any other initiative.
No business plan can withstand the negative effects of chronic under performers remaining in key positions.
It’s just as possible to mess up a good thing by being too aggressive; and we’ve seen that more than once as well. I am not advocating for the hatchet man approach. What I am saying is that wisdom is needed to see the entire picture, the complete paradigm, and be willing to make decisions to reposition or terminate under performing employees rapidly for the overall good of the business (and the employee: rarely are they actually happy while failing, so you are not doing them any favors by leaving them in place in a job they are not succeeding at). If you are a decision maker, or aspire to a decision maker role, this decision is eventually going to end up on your desk. Don’t underestimate its impact. While the quest to reform chronic under performers may seem noble, the problem is that someone drilling holes in the bottom of the boat while everyone else is rowing is just not a winning strategy. Their under performance can affect your job, the results to the business, and as a result, potentially plenty of other people’s jobs as well. The opportunity cost of NOT decisively dealing with under performers often much higher than the leader realizes.
Meanwhile, the clock is ticking and the hill to climb to reach the goal is getting steeper. Time is, as they say, the one resource we can’t get more of.
Serious competitors in any racing sport spend time working on how to get off the starting blocks or out of the gate as quickly as possible, because it’s well nigh impossible to make up for a slow start on race day. As a leader and decision maker, having key roles on your team populated with high performers who are aligned with where you are going is absolutely essential. It will turbo charge your results because – to use the rowing metaphor again – instead of wallowing low in the water you’ll be skimming over the surface with a full complement of oarsmen and less resistance.
All the leaders I’ve interviewed over the years who have had repeated success across multiple assignments – whether within one company or at many – make it a part of their initial assessment to not only evaluate the talent they inherited, but to address talent gaps rapidly rather than waiting. This needs to be done at the same time as a business plan is being created – it can’t wait till later.
Conflict avoidance, insecurity and fear are major reasons people don’t want to address this issue. These are powerful forces. But often they stem from an incorrect assessment of the actual situation: the reality is that there will be more conflict later if you don’t deal with the issue. A big difference between A players and B or C players is this willingness to take ownership of uncomfortable decisions and stay on offense rather than letting a pesky situation drag on and eventually put them in a position of trying to play catch up. A friend once described it to me as “don’t go down the road with a pothole making machine in front of you.”
“A” players take ownership of uncomfortable decisions
If there are under performers on your team now, it’s a good time to take a frank look at the impact they are having on your ability to deliver on the goals you were hired to attain. If they stay in place, will you get there? What is really making you tolerate the under performance? Is that worth it in the long run? How is it impacting the motivation of the rest of the team? How might business be better – and team motivation be enhanced – if you had a high performer in that role instead? And, not trivially, might the stress reduction of resolving the matter decisively actually be more than the temporary discomfort of dealing with the process?