Leadership Accountability – Losing Control of Your Staff?

January 9, 2010

Reader’s Question: I am a sales manager for a business services firm in Minneapolis. I am responsible for all new business revenue for my company and I have 5 sales people that work for me. Of the 5 sales people only one is a star performer. The issue I am having is he breaks all the rules and creates really bad relationships with all the other people in the company. I am on the senior team and the rest of them are angry that this keeps happening. While I don’t like to hear the comments from the senior team, I am aware that I cannot make my numbers goals and the company can’t make there’s for the year without him. What do I do?

Answer: I call this an organizational terrorist! An organizational terrorist is someone who knows what they have on you and they use it to hold you and everyone else in the company hostage to their behavior. I like to take my clients through an exercise of understanding the Goal, Position, and Strategy Questions to determine what actions need to be done.

The first question I ask is, “What is the goal around the problem?” This is to ensure that we are aiming at the right issue. What I invite my clients to do is to first reflect on the organization’s overall goal. Then link that to the current situation. This way whatever you do, your strategy will be in total alignment with what is best for the business overall.

In this situation you have identified, the fact that in order to make your business unit’s goals and the company’s, you need this employee. Oftentimes leaders become so emotionally charged by such situations they act before they consider the goals and objectives of the company or the department. I commend you for your forethought. Typically leaders who do this are considered high in emotional intelligence. This has been shown to be one of the key components in assessing one’s chances for long-term success.

The next step is to understand the position you and your company are in. Elevate to the 50,000-foot level to see the whole situation. Go beyond yourself and ask, “How did this begin to happen?” Sometimes we might find the root cause built into the culture of the organization. Is this type of behavior tolerated here?

When Enron’s CEO learned that two traders were stealing from the company, he did nothing and then soon after told the traders, “Keep making us money.” What they were stealing was minor compared to what they were making the company. He knew that if he took action, he would stop his revenue machine (critical to his end goal). But, by not holding them accountable for the theft, he also implicitly gave permission to others to steal if they were that good at making money for the company. We all know the outcome of this company that lacked a moral compass.

In the case you present, it is apparent that leadership is not prepared to tolerate star employee’s behavior. But the star employee isn’t the only one responsible for the current situation.

Once you go up to the 50,000-foot level and see if the company has had complicity in the situation, then it is good to come down to the 10,000-foot perspective and see if “you” have complicity in the situation. To be frank, and I hate doing this in a column where I can’t ask qualifying questions, but it is hard to imagine that you did not allow this to happen. It doesn’t excuse the star performer’s inappropriate behavior, but you might have been able to stop this behavior cold if you addressed it earlier. In your search for solutions, I suggest hiring a mentor or coach to help you set boundaries for your team and develop leadership accountability. Without clear boundaries, you may very well be faced with this issue again.

The third part of our position investigation is to go to ground level – the situation itself. When we find ourselves in this type of situation with an employee we only have two choices, we can either fire or teach. If an employee makes a mistake, it is because we did not teach them correctly or because they are not capable to do the function. Ask three questions to determine what choice to make: Is the employee capable of learning? Does the organization or do I have the time and resources available to train this employee? Is this employee motivated to learn and change? If the answer to any one of these questions is NO, you need to let this person go. As Donald Trump says, “You’re fired!”

It is unclear from your description if the employee has the capacity to change behavior, so I will assume that he is rather good at what he does for your organization and likely has the ability to change. It is clear that for your number one producer you should have the resources and time to help him come into alignment with the company. The bigger issue is that of motivation. Oftentimes a terrorist does not feel the threat of what can happen to them if they don’t start falling in to line. They have become fat, and happy, and arrogant! This arrogance is what blocks their ability to realize that they need to change. The company, however, has reached a point where it can no longer tolerate this kind of behavior.

Unlike Trump’s TV drama, we live in the real world, and just letting him go is not a great first choice given the company’s dependence on his revenue. If the consequences of your actions will compromise the strategic direction of the company, I would invite you to consider involving the senior team. Yes, it’s your responsibility, but letting this person go will impact many others.

Tell the senior team the steps that you are considering and ask these strategic questions: At what point as an organization are we willing to take a principled stance on the issue over that of revenue? Are we clear what the outcome of this will be to our other employees? Will we need to do cost cutting to compensate for this move? What will the industry see from losing our most talented sales person? Will he go work for our competition? What impact will that have on your company? By working through these strategic issues as an organization and lifting this issue to its proper place–the senior team–you will be aligning everyone to be part of the process and stop complaining about it.

By going through these questions, the conclusion you may arrive at the end of this process is that you use a three-pronged approach to dealing with this situation. Executing three plans simultaneously.

Plan “A” You will need to continue coaching the employee towards the behavior that is in alignment with the firm’s values, beliefs, and rules.

Plan “B”, at the same time, I would highly recommend moving the rest of the sales team to a higher level to lose your dependence on this terrorist, and operationalize Plan “C” and start the recruiting process for the possible if not probable replacement of the employee.

It is important that the others on the senior team and your sales team know that you are coaching this employee in these areas of behavior and that it is not sitting OK with you. But don’t reveal more information than that; it is inappropriate to say more than that in a public setting. This process will build your credibility as a leader and not allow one person’s behavior sink the culture the company wants to build.

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