Dealing with under-performing individuals is something that has been written about far and wide. In various countries there are specific processes and procedures set out in law that require individuals to receive warnings and letters before they can be dismissed. In others they can simply be removed.
Senior management, however, presents some very different challenges. The process for dealing with underperformance may be documented, but the consequences of both their action and yours is far greater. An individual customer service representative or software developer who misses their targets can be dealt with as an individual as the impact is likely to be limited to their own performance. A Head of Department who misses their target may well have created a culture within their team that prevents the targets from being reached. In short, the higher up the chain of command the underperformance is, the greater the impact is likely to be as it filters down.
For example, a senior management team included a call centre manager who was incapable of hitting his sales targets. He blamed his agents, the technology, even the targets. His underperformance cascaded down as he attempted, subconsciously or not, to justify his own poor performance. Team leaders were not held to account, who did not hold agents to account, who viewed targets as a "nice to have" rather than something they were expected to deliver. This locked the call centre into a vicious cycle of not meeting targets, which needed to be justified, creating excuses which became the way the call centre worked.
Clearly senior management underperformance needs to be dealt with quickly. As well as the question of lost revenues or wasted costs, an individual who is seen to "get away with it" can breed resentment in the rest of the senior team. This will eat away at the credibility of their manager and make their job so much more difficult.
There are some who will advocate that quick action means the removal of the individual as fast as possible. No doubt there are circumstances where this is what needs to happen. In general, however, it is my experience that quick, decisive action is required that leaves the individual in no doubt that matters will progress very quickly if performance does not improve.
Gather the facts.
Senior management cannot operate on hearsay and rumour. The specific performance of the individual must be clearly understood, documented and evidenced. This is vital for two reasons: first, you can address the specific issue clearly; second, if there is later action against the firm you are in a position to defend any decisions with facts. If you're unable to identify hard facts around their performance you have a different problem.
I've seen managers take the review step to mean "look at the data for ways to remove the individual." This should not be the case. Look at what the data is telling you. Are the targets realistic? Are they aligned to the strategy? Are they specific enough? At this point you are trying to establish whether you're asking the under-performer to do the right thing. It is worth noting that the answer to this question could be "no."
The under-performer needs to understand quite clearly what is expected, why they are not delivering and take ownership for improving their performance. I will not dictate remedial action plans, but I will expect individuals to create them, I will expect to review them before they are agreed to ensure they are realistic (and that's from the business perspective as well as their own).
If the underperformance continues we're straight into disciplinary action. This is where the involvement of HR from the outset is absolutely key. It is all too easy to "shoot from the hip" and take instant decisions to correct behaviour, yet which leave the firm open to legal action, compensation claims and even having to reinstate poor performers.
Of course, the aim of a senior manager (indeed any manager) is to create a team around them which is based on trust, commitment and honesty. Underperformance should be something that is self correcting as self-aware team members should intuitively know when they have done wrong and seek to correct it quickly. There are, unfortunately, times when it needs to be dealt with more formally.
When you encounter underperformance in your senior management team do not allow it to fester and take root. Take decisive action, but take action that is based on facts, that gives the individual an opportunity to develop and resolve the issue and - above all perhaps - does not expose the business to the risk of time, money and attention consuming legal action.
I've 25 years of experience building new channels, markets and businesses for startups and growing companies in the UK and EU.
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