Talented Slackers: Fire Up or Fire?

Lawrence Polsky Foresight, Leadership, Productivity, Professional Development Leave a Comment

It is the manager’s responsibility to help talented slackers jump onboard or leave the ship—here’s how.

By Lawrence Polsky and Antoine Gerschel

A client recently came to us with a problem. She is on the executive team of a Fortune 500 company, and her senior leadership team is not honoring their commitments. They are not working proactively to solve problems. They act as if they are two levels lower than the positions they hold. She has to poke and prod them to behave like the leaders they were hired to be.

Many executives have experienced this dilemma: you hire and pay a high dollar for promising leaders, only to have them fall short of the expectations you’ve set. As executive team coaches, we hear this again and again: top executives are often frustrated by lack of performance from the team members they hire to lead change, grow business and boost productivity and profits.

How can you fire up, or know when it is time to fire, these talented slackers? Here are some common types of talented slackers and suggestions for what to do:

The Tech Pro/Leadership Amateur – This person is gifted technically (they may be a scientist, engineer, finance whiz, etc.) but flops when making the jump to an executive role. You need them to provide leadership to leverage their team, but they either cannot or will not develop the leadership behavior needed. Often, it is because they remain enamored with the technical details of their work and can’t let go.

We are currently coaching a C-suite scientist who is the Chief Engineering Officer of a global engineering firm. He is relentlessly traveling from site to site where they install turnkey factories, still behaving as a researcher or scientist, stuck on all the details. His C-suite colleagues know that he knows his stuff. Yet they complain he is never reachable, that he writes overly long and detailed reports and has become a bottleneck. In a perfect world, he should have been let go a long time ago, or at least never been promoted to his present position. Now, leadership must either live with his shortcomings, or start over from scratch with someone new.

Fire Up or Fire? If you choose to try to ignite the performance of this sort of slacker, first tell them of your expectations. Let them know they need to start letting go and delegating the technical aspects of the job. Second, be prepared to get them leadership training and/or coaching to develop their leadership skills. If these steps get you nowhere, then you need to reassign the person out of a leadership role into a technical advisory role. If they don’t like that or resist, that’s a sign it is time to let them go.

The Leadership Laggard – Smart, capable and successful in other areas of the organization, this leader plays lip service to your priorities but doesn’t follow through. They are good at making excuses and making their shortfalls seem like someone else’s fault. You continually scratch your head because you know they could succeed if they wanted to.

One executive we worked with had a seemingly very capable person below him. The subordinate had great knowledge and experience, but just did not follow through with new priorities based on a new strategy.  After several months of conversations and promises to change, he still didn’t. He had to go.

Fire Up or Fire? Have a discussion about what you have observed. Cite examples. Give them just one more chance to correct their behavior. Fire them if they don’t do as you have asked.

The Capable Naysayer – This person has good ideas and knowledge but can’t get past a negative attitude. They only see the problems with corporate strategies. Their attitude infects their team.

This pattern often emerges when start-ups consolidate into a bigger corporate (or merged) environment. The startup executives may feel disenfranchised. They used to carry a lot of weight and be close to the decision-making. Now they have to follow more formal procedures, and as a result, they feel less empowered.

Fire Up or Fire? Like all talented slackers, naysayers need frank feedback. We are often asked to help with this type of situation. Often, we do this by interviewing key stakeholders about the person’s reputation within the organization. This sort of internal customer feedback—presented by a third party –is often more useful in motivating the person than a critique coming from you as their direct supervisor. Usually they do respond positively to this feedback, or it triggers a reflection where they decide to leave on their own as they realize it is not the right environment for them (anymore).

No matter what kind of talented slackers you are dealing with, it often boils down to a decision: Get on board or leave. As the supervisor of a talented slacker manager, it’s your job to get them to decide.

Executive team coaches Antoine Gerschel and Lawrence Polsky are managing partners at PeopleNRG.com. The global leadership and team consulting firm has transformed the teams of more than 30,000 leaders in 11 industries in 30 countries on five continents since 2008. For more information, please visit the online press kit  http://www.peoplenrg.presskit247.com/ and public site www.peoplenrg.com.

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