Sadly but inevitably, a common issue in my coaching practice is helping leaders decide whether or not to fire a senior team member. These decisions are always difficult ones--the clear-cut situations resolve themselves and tend not to take up time in a coaching session. Generally speaking, I see four typical scenarios: 1) a gifted individual contributor who's struggling as a new (or newly promoted) manager, 2) a trusted and well-liked early-stage employee who's failing to keep pace with the company's growth, 3) a highly talented but abrasive exec who's alienating other senior team members, and 4) a recent hire who's not fitting in with the company's culture.
I don't offer advice on whether any given individual in one of these scenarios can be saved or whether they and the company need to part ways. When working with a client who's wrestling with one of these decisions, it's essential for me to bear in mind how little I know about the specifics of each case and the individuals involved, and it would be presumptuous to recommend a course of action on the basis of my observations and assumptions.
Instead, the role I play as a coach in these situations is focused on helping my clients sift through all the available data (specifically including their intuitive and emotional responses) that will help them reach a decision. I seek to build a trusting relationship so that I earn the right to ask tough questions. I interpret and reflect back a client's answers to those questions, so they can assess the quality of their thinking. And I often role-play difficult conversations with them, to help them prepare for a range of outcomes. This isn't to say that I don't share opinions or provide feedback--I do. But the emphasis is on asking questions such as these:
Are you deciding whether or not to fire this person, or have you already made up your mind?
In some cases my client has actually made their decision but isn't prepared to move ahead. Loyalty toward the employee, a desire to avoid conflict, or reluctance to admit a mistake can all prevent a leader from taking action even when they've reached a conclusion.
If you're still in the decision-making process, what data do you have--and how do you feel about that data?
Note that I mean "data" in the broadest possible sense, because we're not talking about situations involving clear-cut, objective evidence. Decisions in cases like these always involve a leader's intuitive and emotional response to the person involved, their past performance, their current impact on the team, their future potential, and ultimately what's best for the business. It's impossible to reduce these complex factors to a number that will tell a leader what to do--it requires judgment.
Extensive research has made it clear that emotions play a critical role in reasoning and decision-making. So it's essential that the leader is in close touch with their emotions throughout this process--not allowing frustration or disappointment to cloud their judgment, but rather accessing their full range of emotions and weighing their impact on the decision carefully.
If you're NOT firing them, what happens now?
While I don't tell my clients whether or not to fire someone, I do have strongly held beliefs about how (and how not) to manage team members who are struggling. First, "performance plans" rarely work; they exist primarily to fend off wrongful termination suits. That's a legitimate function, but let's be clear about what's likely to happen--someone who's been put on such a plan will be constantly stressed and unable to do their best work.
But having reached the point of considering a firing, some type of intervention is called for. The specifics vary widely, but the process typically involves some candid feedback, which includes efforts to make feedback less stressful and to recognize the impact of the organizational culture on the feedback process.
If you ARE firing them, when and how will you do it?
There are many dimensions to this phase of the process, ranging from how to handle the conversation to how much time to allow the person to transition out (a week? a day? immediately?) There's no one right way to do this--it depends on a host of circumstances, ranging from the reason for the decision to their functional role to the state of the business.
But there are certainly plenty of wrong ways to do it, and mistakes leaders make include failing to prepare for an emotional response (by either party), presenting a mass of evidence that justifies the decision, or inadvertently leaving room for the person to advocate for their retention.
Before you fire them, who do you need to talk to? And after you've fired them, who do you need to talk to next?
In the midst of this process, it can be easy for a leader to focus on the problematic person and miss the larger context. But it's important to consider who should be informed in advance, such as board members, other investors or the rest of the senior team. Sometimes these conversations involve seeking counsel or getting another perspective, while at other times they simply ensure that the other parties aren't caught by surprise.
Similarly, a leader should have a clear idea of who should be informed afterwards, who should deliver that message, and what the message should be. In some cases the leader should tell the fired person's colleagues and direct reports, while in other cases it's preferable for that person to deliver the message directly. There's no single best practice, but a common mistake is failing to manage this process deliberately and allowing word to spread informally, which leads to misinformation that can cause unnecessary anxiety and uncertainty.
Finally, what can be learned from this experience?
Every firing is a learning opportunity, and the leader should have a thorough discussion with the remaining senior team as soon as possible. Some questions to raise in this conversation:
- Should this person have been fired sooner? If so, what red flags did we miss or choose to ignore?
- Should this person not have been hired (or not promoted) in the first place? If so, again, what red flags did we miss or choose to ignore?
- Why did this person make it through our hiring (or promotion) screens? Should these processes be adjusted in some way?
- What responsibility do the rest of us (and the surrounding organizational culture) bear for this failure? How can we avoid scapegoating this person for our shortcomings?
Photo by Nicholas Wilson. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.