Martyn Drake: The chief executive's biggest challenge

There are four questions that need to be answered when handling poorly performing staff, writes the consultant

Martyn Drake
Martyn Drake

Get a group of 12 chief executives around a table and ask them what is their biggest challenge and the secret of their success, and almost every one of them will tell you the same answer to both questions: it's about getting the right people around you.

More surprising is that the real challenge they describe is rarely one of recruitment – it’s far more likely to be about the people they already have. As your organisation grows and changes – and our sector is facing unprecedented pressure to change right now – the people around you, and the roles they perform, need to grow and change too. And once you recognise that someone, whom you may have been working with for years, seems no longer able to do the job you now need them to do, it puts you in a very challenging place.

It’s natural to postpone and prevaricate. After all, we’re part of a sector that prides itself on its values and the way it treats its people. But keeping someone in a senior role who isn’t delivering what you need, or modelling the behaviour you want to see, is far more damaging than you might think. It demonstrates, whether you like it or not, that you’re happy to tolerate, indeed that you implicitly endorse, everything they do or fail to do. This has a deeply corrosive effect on the expectations and behaviours of everyone else in the organisation.

If you have a question mark over a team member, you need to make a decision and you need to make it fast. Can they turn things around with the right support, or do you need someone else to step in? There are four questions that will help you to make that call quickly.

First of all, clarity – what exactly is it that you want them to do differently? Write down exactly what you want them to deliver that they’re not delivering now. Then ask yourself: "Am I absolutely sure that they know this?" If not, you have to give them that clarity in the belief that they can do it. If you’re not confident in them, neither will they be.

However, if they already know what’s required, the next question is do they want to do it? You can train skill but you can’t train passion – you need to recruit it. If you really believe – or they’re honest enough to say – they don’t want to do it, it’s time to either part company or to bring someone in above them who can do the job.

But if it’s clear they do want to do it, it’s more likely a question of skill. Could they do what is required if their life depended on it? If the answer is no, you need to look for the three "Ps" that show whether it’s worth investing in them to develop the skills: passion and whether they are keen to develop; precedent and whether they have shown they can learn; and potential – do you think they could actually learn this stuff?

But if they know what to do, they want to do it and they could actually do it if they really needed to, it can only be focus. Why aren’t they giving improvement the priority it needs? It’s either because too many other things are genuinely higher priorities or they aren’t giving this the priority it deserves. In which case, you need to help them understand what their priorities should be, and to develop the capability of their teams to take on those things that are getting in the way.

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

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