Posted On 19th December 2013

Right! Google Analytics tells me that a minority of the readers of this blog like to spend less than a minute on it. For these readers the answer to my question is “no”. Goodbye.

The rest of you would I am sure like to know why I feel this way. Here goes.

I spent twelve years in Executive Recruitment interviewing managers and leaders, thousands of them. Asking them how they handled the poor performance of a subordinate was a pretty standard question. I was looking for two things:

1)    They knew the law and were not going to rack up huge law suits by breaking it.

2)    They had the skills and guts to tackle a team member who wasn’t performing in the most appropriate, but robust, way.

In all truth for the first four years I was pretty green. Executive Search wasn’t my first job but I hadn’t managed anyone before. I used to listen to these vastly experienced leaders talk about how they investigated underperformance and how few of them had ever fired anyone.

How wonderful they must have been to always get the best out of everybody!

Then I fell through the back of a wardrobe one day and built a team of 28 people on four sites plus freelancers in less than a year. I hired every one of them and this was the best year of my working life.

Did it work? Yes. Brilliantly in fact. Was everyone a great hire. No, of course not. 26 were amazing and I owe them a lot. One was a misogynist who couldn’t work with my female deputy and another was, frankly, terrified of the telephone.

I got to work on both of them. The young telephone-phobic woman I was able to help. She didn’t want to fail and I coached her. I got her to a state where she could do some of the simpler tasks well enough and free up time for my real race horses. Then we had a vacancy in a backroom role and off she went.

The other one ended with a firing squad. Frankly, he felt working for the team, and especially my deputy, was beneath him and it’s just about impossible to change a mind-set that fixed.

So, down the road we went: informal warnings, formal warnings, written hearings and everything else the company insisted we do. I drew up the death warrant and 48 hours before execution day he quit.

I hated it. But I did it and I’ve done it since. It gets easier. Weakness I will try and work with. Attitude I’ve little patience for. Either way I solve the problem.

Now, alongside this I carried on interviewing people, and I had a very different perspective on all those who’d never fired anybody. Keep in mind I’m talking about serious executives who’d managed hundreds of people.

They couldn’t do it! They were scared! In all truth they’d go to almost any length to avoid that final, awful, confrontation! That had to mean they tolerated poor performance to avoid the agony of doing something final about it.

I started pushing harder and harder on this point and heard so many excuses. I don’t have room for them all here, but they were pitiful really. People earning six figure salaries who run and hid from receptionists who couldn’t receive, social workers who couldn’t care, salesmen who couldn’t sell.

So, it became, with a few exceptions, a “killer question” for me:

David Welsh: Who have you sacked?

Interviewee: No one. I always manage to find an acceptable way of improving their performance or finding them another useful role in the organisation.

David Welsh: Thank you this has been most interesting and we’ll get back to you in two weeks.

Was I too harsh? I don’t know. I’m genuinely interested in your opinion. I think I wasn’t. I did make exceptions in some cases when it was obvious the opportunity hadn’t arisen. One of my recent blogs on Leading From the Front and Where You Can Stick It has proven highly controversial, which is wonderful, so I am keener and keener on reader participation.

But is it realistic that someone can be a good manager of hundreds, even thousands, of people over 20 years and never, ever, show someone the door?

David Welsh

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