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Tuesday, May 5, 2009

you need the right person, not the almost-right person

Most managers say they know how important it is to have the right people on their staff, but many (or even most) don’t act accordingly.

We've all worked with managers who dance around performance problems rather than addressing them head-on, who don’t focus enough on developing and retaining their best people, and who are way too slow to fire, if they do it at all. These are managers who either underestimate the importance of having the right people or overestimate their own powers to shape their staffers’ performance.

The impact of having a team of high performers is dramatic. I'm not talking about small gains, like 5% or 10% in productivity and effectiveness. I'm talking about massive, startling gains. Research from a range of fields shows that high performers can outpace lower performers by factors of five times or more. In other words, one high performer can have the same impact as five average performers.

You've probably seen this in your own experience. Most people have had an employee who struggled to handle the volume of work and who swore that there was too much work for any one person to juggle ... but when they left, their replacements were able to handle all of the work and then some, to the point that we ended up giving the replacement extra work. I once inherited an employee who had racked up a six-month backlog of work. I replaced him with someone new, who within one month had processed the six-month backlog and was fully caught up.

Having the right person in the job makes a huge difference. And having the wrong person will hold you back tremendously.

What does this mean for managers? You should put significant energy into getting and keeping the right people and moving out the ones who don’t meet that bar. And while it's certainly worth some investment of your time to help develop people who are struggling, ultimately the person needs to meet a high bar, not a medium one. Otherwise, the opportunity cost is just too high.


Anonymous said...

This is so very true! The company I work for (a small co.) has a habit of firing those that don't perform, which is good. The problem is that the rest of us are left to pick up the slack until someone new is hired, and there is now a culture of survival in a sense.

For those of us who have to clean up after those no longer with the company it's simple to see why they are no longer here (why were they given so many chances!?!?) but those not behind the scenes see a good worker/ friend getting the axe, and wonder when they will be next. That is not a good environment to work in.

Taria Shadow said...

This is very true... I have seen it several times as a fellow employee. In fact, in one case the person went on a two-week vacation and left a week backlog... I was asked to cover her position in addition to my own while she was on vacation, and managed not only to keep up with my own work (it was the slow season for me) but also catch up on her backlog.

Unfortunately, nothing changed once she returned, and she was very shortly behind again... and the company didn't do anything about it.

I have also noticed a somewhat disturbing trend, however - companies who think they are letting go of bad performers when the declining productivity is not caused by poor performance.

For example, in my current workplace, I inherited a huge backlog when I started my job, left over from the previous employee, who was let go. After about two weeks, I had caught up on her backlog and was handling incoming requests just fine.

Fast forward to three years later. I now have a backlog of about a week, which while not as much as I had inherited, is still a lot. Has my perfomance gone down? I don't believe so - in fact, I can directly tie it to the amount of work I receive. When I ask for help, management comes back with a diplomatic version of "you're doing fine". When I point out the increased workload, I am basically told that someone must have been doing it before (which isn't true, a lot of the workload is new responsibilities and reports that I helped develop), and told that "I'm doing fine".

The only problem is that I get complaints on my turnaround time, all the while being told that my workload "isn't that bad". Basically, management is starting to get the impression that my productivity has dropped off, when it really hasn't.

I was competent enough that they increased my workload by 200%. And now they are starting to get the impression that I am not competent. Catch 22.

Charles said...

Yes, yes, and yes. That's three yeses for three replacements.

I once worked for a company that had ONE person doing a certain job - customizing computer forms for clients. It was a challenging job as clients did not always know exactly what they wanted and working with the software to get things done was almost like writing code. This guy did his job very well as he was patient with the clients and he was very detailed oriented. All done while on tight deadlines. But he wanted more money which management felt wasn't worth it.

They should have invested in keeping him because after he left they eventually ended up replacing him with THREE people.

Anonymous said...

The bosses at my current workplace hate hiring and firing so much that they simply don't do anything about bad employees -- not even the mildest rebuke. This has driven several good employees to quit or become bad employees themselves. And the bosses still wonder why they can't seem to keep any good people. (Me, I'm going back to school in a few months.)

Clare said...

I completely underestimated the power of teams until the team I worked in was allowed to disintegrate.

What we had collectively acquired over a few years of working together in terms of knowing the work, getting it done in the most efficient and client-friendly way, and saving the company huge amounts of time and money, was effectively squandered.

In my experience, it's not just individual employees who contribute (or not) but also the strength of the work teams. Just as long as you don't have to deal with a slacker...

Anonymous said...

AAM, could you please detail what was the job done by the poor performer who had racked up a six-month backlog of work ?
I'd like to know if it was possible to reveal the low productivity of this employee without replacing him, and what were the causes of his low productivity. Thx.

Bryan said...

It does seem to be down to management’s reluctance to manage performance. Most organisations will have guidance on how to deal with poor performance, the steps that need to be taken. Unfortunately, this takes time and effort; if targets are met then there isn’t a problem.
I always get the feeling that there is a state of grace at work: what is expected of an employee in the beginning will be what’s expected several years down the line.

Mel Vault said...

So many variables play into this. One is whether or not the company views a failed hire as a reflection on the Manager. Mine doesn't, which takes care of the performance problem. The downside as mentioned in the 1st reply - it tends to create an atmosphere of mediocre morale since not everyone knows the details of the person's performance.

Ask a Manager said...

Anonymous, he mainly did money processing and database work. I was new to managing the department, had inherited him when I started, and hadn't seen anyone else do the work to have benchmarks to measure him against, but I did know he seemed very, very slow. Whenever I talked with him about it, he was convinced this was as fast as anyone could be. Now having seen others do the work much faster, I know that his pace was as fast as HE could be, which wasn't very fast at all; he wasn't well-matched for the job.

Chris Young said...

Great post Alison! I have chosen your post for inclusion in my weekly Rainmaker 'Fab Five' blog picks of the week (found here: to share you message with my readers.

Be well!