Five questions great executives ask when dealing with performance problems

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“I’ve got to act on a performance issue with one of my executives,” the CEO said over lunch.
“How do you know it’s a performance issue?” I asked
“Well, he’s been caught out not telling the truth on a couple of important matters. He is countermanding projects I have set up and he has stopped making himself available for calls from his people over the weekends recently.”
“So, these are all evidence of performance issues in the present. Could there be less visible things that explain these actions?”

“I don’t know how to even think about that,” the CEO replied as he bent over his meal.
The substance of what we then talked about together were the five critical lines of enquiry that need to be followed to determine if the position in redeemable.

1. Is there a skill and or experience gap? One way to more fully understand issues that seem to be performance related is to notice that performance (i.e. what we see happening) is actually founded on a whole raft of less visible aspects that together make us the complete persons we all are. When a problem arises the first place to look is whether the executive has a shortcoming in their skills, experience or education. It is easy and understandable that a boss would assume that a person is job ready. In the particular case I was working on this was not the situation. Had it been the case and all other factors were fine it could be easily remedied by providing what was lacking.

2. What is the level of alignment between the individual and the organisation? Do they currently share the same values, ideals, aspirations and possibilities for what can be achieved as those who are leading the organisation? Sometimes a person’s values shift; what they genuinely valued at the beginning of a new job may alter over time for a whole variety of reasons. In this case a fundamental potential breakdown was beginning to appear between the individual executive’s alignment to the company project he was leading and the rest of the organisation. He did not share the same sense that the project could be delivered. Whether he had correctly analysed the situation or not was beside the point; what needed to happen was a conversation about alignment. If he could get realigned or alternatively if he could realign the organisation’s view of what would create a successful project then he could and should stay. Otherwise he should leave. Putting him on a performance management plan would probably lead to him being dismissed; a result that removes the symptoms rather than deals with the real problem. When these kinds of simplistic solutions are resorted to they tend to stifle reflective learning and improvement.

3. Is the person committed to the ideals and aspirations as much as the rest of the organisation? In this case the executive had lost his commitment. It was due to a range of factors. But the question for the leader is: can commitment be rekindled? If so, great; if not, then separation is almost always the only other outcome. Uncommitted people quickly lose personal effectiveness and their lack of commitment acts like a virus amongst others.

4. Are they on board? If not it may be possible to re-dance the re-engagement two step by doing a tailored re-induction to re-introduce the person to the organisation. Otherwise separation looms again.

5. Is further development an option?  It is very easy to overlook the fact that sometimes performance apparently falls off because the person is ready for a move or new accountabilities within the existing role.
When responses to these questions have been examined, the evidence of performance issues can be considered much more effectively. If the CEO had called his executive in and told him he wanted him to rigorously tell the truth, not undermine the CEO’s authority and be available for urgent calls out of hours without first considering these other areas, the executive might simply have complied , at least for a while. But if the underlying reasons for these behaviours were not addressed, it is likely those same behaviours or other similar responses would emerge.

In summary, it is easy to jump to performance management as the place to focus on when a problem arises. But often the apparent performance issue is merely an indication of something more complex. If performance is to be genuinely improved, sometimes the deeper, more latent reasons behind the apparent performance issue have to also be addressed or failure will result.

Author: Ian Sampson (B.Comm., LLB., FAICD, FAIM), Cause and Effective Associate, is a Strategic Advisor to Boards and an Executive Coach. Ian can be contacted here.

Image from 123rf

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