Weed or feed

One of my TEC members fired a key member of his senior management team recently.

The employee had lost the confidence of his team. Performance was off plan. Morale was down. The CEO moved quickly. When I asked about the abrupt termination, he said, “I’ve never fired anyone too soon.”

Truer words, in a business context, may never have been spoken.

If you have ever managed an employee who was not performing, you know the drill. You give marginal employees every opportunity to succeed. You coach and prod them. You reward them for temporary improvement and threaten them when the inevitable backsliding occurs. Managers agonize. Co-workers fret. Performance still isn’t up to par.

The question is, why?

Why do managers allow marginal employees to drag down the performance of the team and perhaps the entire organization? And what are we to do about it? Here are a few suggestions.

Popularity over accountability

Author Patrick Lencioni, in his leadership fable “The Five Temptations of a CEO,” identified an important issue for many leaders. We want to be liked. Being liked by close friends is one thing. The need to be liked by direct reports threatens accountability within the organization. It often leads to feelings of favoritism and unfairness.

What to do about it?

The CEO in Lencioni’s fable quit rather than deal with the issue. Pretty dramatic, and not exactly a career-enhancing decision. But it’s not bad advice. If you are interested in being popular, join a country club. If you want to manage, give your people direct, honest and timely feedback.

The devil you know

“Well, boss, I know Randy isn’t performing up to the expectations of the job, but at least we know what we’ve got. If I had to hire someone new I’d be starting over with an unknown commodity. It could be worse.”

In the minds of some managers, anything is better than dealing effectively with the fear of firing an underperformer. At best, “the devil” is a poor excuse for a bad hiring process.

Tom Foster, a TEC resource specialist, has a better alternative in a hiring process based on matching time span capability with the level of work and decision making required on the job. Foster replaces the gobbledygook of the typical job description with a specific role description organized around key result areas. The process is described more thoroughly in his book, “Hiring Talent.”

The performance improvement program

“We can change this guy. He has all the talent in the world. We’ll suck up the lost productivity and improve his performance over the long run.”

Really?

Or how about this excuse? “I made the hiring decision. We’ve got to give him a chance or it will look like I made a mistake.”

When rationalizing the effectiveness of the performance improvement program, ask these two “acid test” questions instead. If the employee quit, would you be really upset with the loss? And if you had it to do over again, would you hire this person for this job? If the answer to either is no, remove the marginal performer.

No sufficient documentation

“We’re going to get sued if we fire her. She’s in a protected class.”

Yep. You’re probably going to get sued. And the settlement amounts have grown to the absurd. But it’s better to settle and chalk it up to “bad management” than let some EEOC bogeyman drag down the rest of the organization. Better yet, buy some employment practices insurance, stop worying and get on with it.

The lack of documentation suggests the lack of a management system that ensures an accurate understanding of what’s expected in terms of job performance. A good system also provides timely and specific feedback on performance compared to expectations.

Other processes

There are numerous variations on the “weed or feed” approach to hiring, firing and keeping good people. Top grading provides a no-nonsense framework for hiring and retaining only A-players, for example.

Jack Welch at GE was legendary for his 20-70-10 forced grid rankings of all employees and the determination to weed out the bottom 10 percent each year. Some people thought it was cruel and unusual punishment for GE employees.

But as Welch points out in his book “Jack: Straight from the Gut,” the process to remove the bottom 10 percent of his people was just the opposite. Welch thought it was brutal to keep people around who were not going to grow and prosper. “There is no cruelty like waiting and telling people late in their careers that they don’t belong,” he said.

Red Scott, one of my colleagues from Florida, put it another way, “The best thing you can do for a good employee is fire a bad one.”

A structured weed or feed process will help get it done.

Dennis Ellmaurer is a management consultant who works primarily as a TEC chairman, leading three CEO mastermind groups in southeastern Wisconsin. He can be reached at 414-271-5780 or dennis@globenational.com.

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