Published: July 8, 2011
Jennifer Selby Long, Selby Group
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Fix Charlie, Will Ya?

“Charlie’s become a problem. We thought he’d be great in this role, but he’s blowing it big time. He was great in his previous role, but now he’s missing deadlines, he’s losing key team members, and he’s become completely disorganized in running his organization. So we thought you could coach him. We told him already, so you can get started right away.” Thus began another project for two of the most colorful characters in my cast of clients, the founders of a crazy, wild and successful start-up.

(Lest you worry that this story is about you, Charlie is a fake name, and both Charlie and the founders are hybrids of multiple leaders. Phew!)

Like most entrepreneurs, the founders had high IQ’s, killer work ethics, and no shortage of courage. Also like their fellow entrepreneurs, they were often pressed for the time to devote to some of the surprises that popped up in their organization. Charlie’s performance was the latest of these.

I had a feeling that Charlie hadn’t suddenly hit the skids for personal reasons. He had been a top performer since he first joined the company several years earlier. Top performers rarely become average or poor performers all on their own. There’s usually at least one other factor in play, and to coach the leader without addressing the other factors is risky.

A more complex picture emerged after I talked with Charlie, several of his direct reports, the HR director, and the people whose success depended on Charlie’s department. After these conversations, I believed that there were five factors influencing Charlie’s performance, each of which fed the others.

See if you recognize any of these from your own organization:

  • Charlie and his team had started receiving direction from five different people who did not coordinate with one another. This is common in fast-growing companies. Everyone’s wearing multiple hats and running to keep up with the work. It’s not a sign that they’re dysfunctional and doomed. It’s perfectly normal and completely fixable.
  • Charlie was new to management, having managed projects but not teams, and he didn’t know how to handle the leadership aspects of the role. The founders had no time to guide him. This is also very common, and it’s not a sign of weaknesses, or poor fit, in and of itself.
  • While attempts had been made to document the work process, it was constantly changing, and since Charlie knew the process best, he often jumped in and personally finished the work started by his newest, slowest employees. He felt he didn’t have time to train them and that he was already working so many weekends that he didn’t want to add more to his plate.
  • Charlie’s department had morphed into a stepping stone to something better rather than the ultimate job in the company. At this point in time, he would be best off to manage on the assumption that the best people would move up and out of his organization within 2 – 3 years, not that they would stay. That meant he needed to get them trained and integrated into the team faster.
  • The most seasoned team member was angry, bitter, and cynical, but could do his work faster than anyone else. However, as a team member, his performance was poor, because no one wanted to work anywhere near him. This employee was creating a vicious cycle for himself, and dragging others along in his current. This is also common, and the employee is rarely fully aware of his or her negative impact on co-workers.

How did I come to these conclusions? Despite the fact that this list sounds negative, I was only able to see the problems because I started with positive assumptions. I looked at the whole system and not just at Charlie, and I assumed the best about everyone involved. We all do the best we can with what we know at the time. That doesn’t make anyone “dysfunctional.” In fact, I adamantly refuse to assume that anyone is dysfunctional or deeply flawed until presented with overwhelming evidence.

Why am I so adamant about this? A diagnosis of “dysfunctional” is very serious, and it implies that the people involved are helpless to change anything without years of therapy. Yet, in a society in which psychology buzzwords are embedded in the vernacular (often with only a fuzzy understanding of what they mean), too often people categorize themselves or others into the “dysfunctional” box, and believe that someone has to fix or destroy the dysfunction.

Every now and then I do come across a team or individual that has become dysfunctional and needs a complete overhaul, but often the solution is not as all-encompassing as that, because the problems and opportunities lie in knowledge, processes, roles, and/or structure, not in fundamental psychological health.

This was the data that was shared with me, none of which seemed to indicate dysfunction but rather the normal human reactions to organizational change in knowledge, processes, roles, and/or structure.

See if you recognize any of these from your work environment:

  • The HR director provided the back story that Charlie was the fourth “star” to be awarded the prestigious job of leading this team. No one had managed to improve the performance of this team.
  • Since this appeared to (perhaps) be the department where stars came to die, I interviewed two of the prior managers who were still with the company. They shared how frustrating it had been to manage the work as more and more people started directing it, and how much happier and more effective they were in their new jobs.
  • In separate conversations, Charlie and his team members said they “had whiplash” trying to keep five VIP bosses happy. Several of them, while unwilling to share specifics, said that “some employees were burned out” and that this created a sour work environment. I had no trouble figuring out who was “burned out” since the bitter, angry employee was only too pleased to have the opportunity to indignantly complain to me for his entire 30-minute time slot.
  • Charlie privately shared the discomfort he felt in leading the group, believing that he was ill-prepared and perhaps not cut out for the role. He felt loyal to the company and to the founders, and he felt guilty for letting them down. He also felt discouraged when they came down hard on him. From their perspective, they would only be this demanding of talented people who could handle it, but from his perspective, he was turning into a big loser and he didn’t understand why.

There were also some red herrings, as there always are. I encouraged the founders to ignore some of the red herrings and address others as their own, separate focus.

The story has a happy ending. The founders had been absolutely right that Charlie would improve his performance with some coaching support, and Charlie was a committed and enthusiastic learner throughout the coaching process. It turned out that he had plenty of leadership inside of him; he just hadn’t had the knowledge to bring it out and put it to work.

Of equal importance, the founders were open to hearing that there were other systemic issues in play, and at their level, the biggest issue was resolving who should direct the work of this team. Telling two treasured employees they would have to cede decision-making authority over this group wasn’t easy. Even coming to agreement with each other about which of the two of them should be the primary executive-level leader for this group was tough, but they did it.

Within two months, the team’s performance began to markedly improve, and Charlie’s confidence was restored. He learned how to coach his angry, bitter employee to improve his performance as a team member. He came to understand that he could engage the whole team to improve processes, training, and documentation. Charlie realized that giving his team more power didn’t make him a bad manager. It made him a better leader, and after the first two months, it gave him back his weekends.  

It took an additional three months to implement, measure, and adjust the changes being made, but having a few early wins gave everyone the incentive to stick with it, and the team has been working more effectively ever since then.

 



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