Coach's Corner

A selection from frequently–asked questions

Dear Coach,

Three months ago I was appointed President of a medium-sized, engineered products company and have discovered that it’s in much worse shape than described. I’ve studied every aspect; structure, key personnel, systems and processes and even commissioned a full staff survey. My conclusion is that I need to replace the current General Manager.

My challenge is that he’s been here less than two years, coming from out-of-province, and his family are still in the process of moving here.  I know that he has to go but I’m concerned that his dismissal is going to raise an inappropriate storm of sympathy – he’s a nice guy! I don’t want to be the bad guy!


Response:

You are indeed challenged – you need to do the right thing; you also have to avoid unintended consequences. So far you appear to have done all the right things, gaining an understanding of the situation from every aspect. You’ve made a careful diagnosis in context and all this before deciding and prescribing action – well done!

Your course of action must now be based on two principles – fairness and dignity.

At this point you have to consider two fundamental questions. Firstly, has the General Manager been made fully aware of what was expected of him, his performance shortfalls, and has he been given time and support for a remedial course of action? It often happens that at least one of these factors has been neglected – a lack of clarity, constructive feedback and/or proper opportunity for correction.

The evidence to support each of these points should have been properly and fully documented so that there’s no reasonable doubt. You owe it to the individual and the organization to protect the investments already made in this person; unplanned dismissals are costly in many ways!

Absence of a clear and specific mandate is common, and also unprofessional. It’s not prudent to assume that even an experienced and well-intentioned individual will fully grasp and accommodate the expectations of others without extensive discussion and confirming summaries.  My preference is a mandate which spells out what is expected in terms of the scope of the position, the available resources and restraints that apply, the specific deliverables with due dates and the relevant timings for starts, reviews and renewals.

Assuming this has been done and the performance gaps are also obvious and irrefutable, the needed corrective action, resources and time involved are frequently inadequately defined. Performance can rarely be radically improved without a deliberate plan which is constructed and supported by key people. Prior, mutual understanding is foundational to fairness.

Let me assume (always a dangerous practice) that you have satisfied yourself that all this has been properly done so we can move to the second question. It’s based on incontestable evidence that everything has been revealed and negotiated so that the desired performance improvements have had a chance to be realized.

You have been as fair as you are able under the circumstances.

How do you now proceed in a way that preserves dignity for all concerned? For certain, your decision is unlikely to be universally accepted; there will always be those who would move the earth to protect others, even from helpful changes. On the other hand, there are many too who are wondering how much longer they will be expected to tolerate deficient performance.

Let’s be clear; you are helping no one by avoiding corrective action, up to and including the dismissal of someone who is failing in the role. If the person is unable to meet the demands of their current role, despite careful and considered guidance, then you are not helping them by leaving them in place. You must act to protect and sustain all those who are adversely affected by the poor performance, and in this case, it’s the entire organization.

The decision will be painful for the General Manager certainly, but if he’s aware that he’s under-performing, I doubt that he enjoys getting up for work every day. It cannot be fulfilling to know that you’re floundering, that others are hurting because you are not in the right place at the right time, and that disaster could strike at any moment.

Quickly and respectfully relieve them of the role even if you do not yet have a full-blown replacement. I’ve witnessed individuals being left in situ for months and even years knowing that a replacement was being sought but not yet identified. The damage this causes to all concerned is immeasurable. It would be better to allow, perhaps encourage, junior staff to share the duties of the role with proper oversight than to leave someone in this kind of purgatory.

Let’s return to our General Manager, at best only partially responsible for the imprudent appointment decision, who now finds his world turned upside-down. He will need help with his transition to the next phase of his career, and this could include severance pay, honest references, public relations support, relocation counselling and time. If candour and respect are prominent in planning for this transition the damage you fear will be minimized.

You will be judged on two counts – have you acted fairly, and it’s clear that you have through careful examination and consultation across the board, and have you acted with dignity and respect. You have to make the tough decisions as President and they’ll not always be popular with everyone but they must always be fair and dignified for all concerned.

I hope this helps.