August 5, 2012

Good Leaders Fire People

You can’t be a good leader unless you learn to fire people.

I call it “managing out.”

Sometimes you make a hiring mistake.  Sometimes the organization outgrows the ability of a person.  Sometimes people get too comfortable and complacent.  The list goes on.

If someone isn’t performing at a high level it’s your responsibility as the leader to support them and help them improve.  Sometimes you can, and sometimes you can’t.

If you can’t you must manage them out.  Fast.

When I took my first general manager job a man named Stan was leader of the sales team.  He was smart, charismatic, organized and popular with the team.  The problem was that his mind was sealed shut regarding any possibility of change or improvement.  If I asked Stan a question like “Is there room to improve sales person training?” I’d always get the same answer: “No.  We’ve done everything we can.”  It was his standard answer for everything.  This was absolutely unacceptable — there are always a thousand ways to improve anything.

I tried to pry open his mind and get him thinking proactively about how to change and improve.  He remained stubbornly resistant.

After some time it  began to dawn on me that Stan was not the right fit for sales leader.  We were missing opportunities to improve and increase revenue growth due to his attitude.

Still I persisted.  I wanted to give Stan another chance and be “fair.”  “He just might get it” I thought.  Plus I worried at how he would react and how it might affect the team.  So I avoided the problem and let the situation drag on for more than six months, hoping it would improve with more coaching.  It didn’t.

Eventually I had had enough.  Stan had to go.

During our next one-to-one meeting I asked Stan whether he felt he was making progress toward his career goal of being a general manager.  As expected, his answer was “no.”  I told him it was clear that he wasn’t satisfied in the job and that he was just dialing it in.  I encouraged him to open up and share his frustration, which he did.  Then I played my card.

“Stan, it seems like this job may not be the right fit for you.  It’s not helping you achieve your goals.  The team also needs someone who’s more switched on and enthusiastic.”  Pause, then a firm  “I think it’s best for you and for the team if you move on to your next challenge.”  He knew his time was up.  After some back and forth we agreed on a timetable.

A few months later Stan announced to the team that he had found a new opportunity.  We sent him out like a rock star.  Not only was he happier in his new job, but I found an outstanding sales leader who was all about continual improvement.  It made a huge difference in our sales and customer service.

I learned a ton from this experience.

Tolerating a “just ok” performer on my team hurt everyone, including the low performer.  I thought I was being “humane” and “fair” by not managing him out quickly.  The reality is that I was just avoiding a problem instead of tackling it straight on. I was using the excuse of being humane to avoid an unpleasant task, just hoping against my better judgment that things would improve.

Perhaps my biggest lesson was that my slow decision-making cost Stan and the team valuable time and opportunity.  I should have managed out Stan as soon as I concluded he wasn’t the right fit.  Both parties would have been better off, sooner.  It’s a lesson that has made me a better leader.

Have you fired anyone lately?

In the next post Managing Someone Out (the Right Way) I explain how to lay the groundwork and manage someone out effectively.

Comments welcome!