Raising the performance bar

Should they stay or should they go, now…

Whether it’s a result of the pandemic and financial pressure, or of developing new strategies and bigger aspirations, over the last six months I’ve been having a lot of conversations with different leaders about restructuring, reorganising, and rethinking their teams.

Some are still working through their options, others have made their moves and are assessing if it’s worked. But all are asking similar questions: Do I have the right players in the right positions to succeed? How do I know? And what if I don’t?

In my leadership seminars I’ve often asked groups of CEOs if they have ever fired someone too quickly. I don’t remember a single person saying “yes”. Instead, to murmurs of accord, I’ll typically hear numerous examples of where they wished they’d moved faster. But it’s no coincidence that neither do I remember ever meeting anyone who actually enjoys sacking people. For most “normal” people, it’s a horrible, stressful, agonising thing to have to do.

But one thing’s for sure, if someone does need to go, the longer you take to act, the longer it will drain energy, drag on  performance, and poison the atmosphere in your team. And more than that: if you think they need to go but you’re avoiding taking action, it will bring out the worst in you. Some of the worst cultures I’ve seen have resulted from leaders hoping that if they push a bit harder, this person will quit of their own accord. Trust me, that is not a road you ever want to find yourself travelling.

So what do you do when one of your key players seems to be struggling to perform or to step up into a new role?

How can you confidently determine and resolutely decide, as quickly as possible, whether they can turn things around, or if you need to make a change?

Here are the four questions that will help you quickly make that call:

1. Clarity

Exactly what would you like them to be doing that they’re not? Be really specific. Write it down so you’re crystal clear, because if you aren’t, they can’t be. Now ask yourself: do they know this? Try asking them to tell you, and listen to how they describe the expectation. If the answer is no, the first step is to give them that clarity. Approach it with compassion, be open that you want them to succeed, and nine times out of ten, this will give them what they need. But if they already know what’s required, the next question is:

2. Desire

Do they actually want to do it? You can train skill but you can’t train passion – you need to recruit it. Throwing incentives at people for motivation isn’t the answer. There are only two choices. If the “area of disinterest” isn’t core to their job, you could carve it out and give it to someone else, or they could delegate or subcontract it themselves. If it’s core, you need to make a change. But if the desire to do it is there, the next question is about:

3. Skill

Could they do it if their life depended on it; if they had a metaphorical “gun to their head”? If the answer is yes, it’s not a skills issue. If it’s a no, you need to look for the three qualities that will help you decide if it’s worth investing in them to develop the skills: Passion (are they keen to develop); Precedent (have they shown you they can learn); Potential (do you genuinely believe they could learn this stuff) – that gives you the choice, and also the roadmap for a turnaround. However, if they clearly know what to do, they genuinely want to do it, and they already have the skills, the issue is invariably one of:

4. Priority

Why aren’t they giving it the focus it needs? It’s either because too many other things are genuinely higher priorities, or they don’t understand the priority this areas deserves. In a battle between urgent and important, urgent always wins. The good news is that this is the easiest one to fix.

Bottom line

Most of the time, underperformance is due to poor communication, either of responsibilities or of priorities. When it’s genuinely an issue of capability or attitude, having open, direct conversations can be a relief to both parties. The single most important thing though, is to make that call and to resolve to act, quickly.

One response to “Raising the performance bar

  1. My company is a global Fortune 500 company but the headquarters are in a relatively small town. This means we see co-workers out and about at event, the stores and at church. The company strives to bring in diversity and fresh graduates from the outside– but still they keep “no loads” despite an aggressive performance evaluation process.

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