How to Manage Your Employees and How to Let them Go

When it comes to leading others whether you have a small team or a large one, you may find that managing performance is difficult and moving people off, excruciating.  As the CEO of a consulting firm, I understand this pain as I face the same issues myself, but as a lifelong student and now teacher of leadership, I have learned how to frame it in a way that makes the work logical and structured and a little less emotional.

That doesn’t mean that you won’t feel anything.  After all, we are humans, and humans have emotions.  Giving performance feedback gives us fear, anxiety, and overall discomfort and when people leave the organization either by their own choice or by ours, we often feel hurt, angry or sad. All of these emotions are normal and in fact part of the grieving process.  Yes, grieving…. When one of your team leaves, you are losing something, losing someone, and even if the organization is better without them, it’s still hard, and you will likely experience some level of grief.

Emotions aside, there is a framework for thinking about managing performance that may help you to do the work that needs to be done.  That is to say that we can reframe how we think about this difficult part of our work as leaders.  Have you ever had an epiphany, a moment in which you understand something in a new way and after which you never think about it the same again?  That is an example of “reframing.”  With performance management consider thinking about it like this:

Leadership is Your Job

I remember watching the movie Gravity and thinking about how thin Sandra Bulluck was as she floated inside the spacecraft.  And then, having heard rumors of her $70 million estimated income for the movie, I thought, “I would get skinny too for $70 million.”  But the very next thought I had was that the willingness to do what it takes, not only to get skinny or add pounds but to hone the craft of acting, to practice and grow and become the best she can possibly be is exactly why she is able to achieve such a great income. And ever since that thought, I’ve been teaching leaders the same thing.  Learning how to be good at setting a vision, engaging others around it, building a strategy, living the values, managing performance and getting the right people on the bus and the wrong people off the bus, is the job.  Leaders do not get the luxury of handing off the particularly distasteful piece of giving difficult feedback or moving people off.  This is the job, and it’s a leader’s responsibility to learn how to do and do it well.

Understand the Value of Your People and the Value of Managing Their Performance

It’s also helpful to understand the value of your people and managing their performance.  The talent in your organization is your greatest asset.  If you don’t believe it, try to get the work done without them. And just like good equipment versus poor equipment, the level of your talent has a value, a dollar value.  Those at the top of the talent pool are not worth 10x of the average employee, they are worth 1000x the average employee.  They should be paid in the upper quartile in compensation for the position in order to incentive them and to keep them.  The employees in the middle band have a good solid value but are closer to the mid-range in compensation for the position.  Those who are below the middle band, shouldn’t be there at all.

Now, I’m not trying to diminish the wonderful, human side of each person when I say this, but if you think about your talent from this perspective, you will see that it’s worth it to pay for the best talent you can afford.

Learn How to Evaluate Your Team Members

Once you have your talent on board, it’s important to learn how to evaluate their performance.  Again using the analogy of equipment, let’s take a drill.  You would not be able to evaluate the performance of a drill, if you weren’t clear about what you wanted it to do.  You must first establish expectations before you can begin to conduct an evaluation.  It’s the same with your talent.

As a leader, its your job to set the expectations for your employees so that they know what a good job looks like?  Once that is clear, if your employee is not meeting expectations, ask yourself “is there anything in his or her background that would have taught him or her how to do this?”  If the answer is “no,” then it’s your job to ensure your employee gets the training needed to be successful.  Tell, or better yet, show your employee what a good job looks like as seeing someone model a task done well is one of the best ways for employees to learn.

Move Off Poor Performers

Even when you do your job well and do all that you can to choose great talent and then ensure that they are equipped to do the job, there are still times when it doesn’t work out.  It may be that the environment is not the best for your employee to thrive, there are difficult team dynamics or the job isn’t a good fit.  Really, it could be so many things but when it doesn’t work, its your job as a leader to make the hard call and move them out.  Moving people out of the organization can often be done in a kind way where you can still say hello on the street and even potentially work together in another capacity down the road.  It doesn’t have to be mean, but it does have to be done.

Now, I’m not saying that you should be quick to fire people.  I’m just saying, don’t be too slow.  Poor performers will hurt your business. For one, they are not doing their job well and maybe even more importantly, your top talent does not want to work with a poor performer.  If you don’t do something about it, you may lose your top talent because they will likely be targets for recruiters and if they don’t like working with the poor performers in your organization, they will be tempted to move on.  You wouldn’t want to lose someone that can really advance your organization because you didn’t do your job of moving off poor performers.

If you put the hard work of leadership in this frame, it takes some of the fear out of it.  You can see that your talent is directly tied to your ability to create revenue for the business and you have to make decisions about the level of your talent, just as you do about the level of your equipment.  You wouldn’t want to keep a drill that sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t, so why would you keep an employee that sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t.

Just like Sandra Bullock has to lose weight, get acting coaches and whatever else she needs to do to prepare for the roles that bring in the money, you as a leader have to be willing to do what it takes.  Read books, get coaching, go to training and be willing to do what is necessary to be really good at evaluating your talent,  setting expectations, giving valuable feedback and getting the right people on the bus and the wrong people off the bus, because that’s what leaders do and leadership is the job.  It’s your job, so be willing to do whatever it takes to do it well.

Bonnie Hagemann is co-author of the books “Leading with Vision” and  “Decades of Difference” and CEO of Executive Development Associates. EDA is a 30-year-old internationally known boutique consulting firm in custom executive development


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