Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Introducing the Leadership Development Roundtable Challenge!

I'm pleased to introduce the new Leadership Development Roundtable Challenge!

Each month, a core member of The Roundtable will introduce a leadership challenge and a solicit a 200 word maximum answer from the other core members plus one special guest. Readers can then contribute their own answers and/or vote for their favorite.

Here are your Roundtable hosts:

1. Dan McCarthy, from Great Leadership

2. Art Petty, from Management Excellence

3. Mary Jo Asmus, from Mary Jo Asmus

4. Steve Roesler, from All Things Workplace

5. Jennifer Miller, from The People Equation

6. Scott Eblin, from The Next Level

7. This month's special guest: John Baldoni, from Lead by Example

Here's this month's challenge:

Rob was recently brought in to take over as the new General Manager of Operations for a large, established, mid-size (4 billion in revenue) company. The unit has been under performing, and the Vice-President (his manager) thought it was time for a change. The incumbent “left to pursue other opportunities and spend more time with family” and it was determined there were no viable internal replacements (although a couple members of Rob’s team thought they should have been considered).

Rob has a stellar track record, impressive credentials, and appears to be the right person to drive change and get results. Rob’s manager loves his passion and aggressiveness.

After 30 days on the job, Rob has interviewed each of his direct report managers and reviewed their performance data, and has determined before he can do anything, he needs to get “the right people on the bus”, and do it ASAP. He feels that while two of the managers may someday be able to grow into the role and meet his expectations, the other four don’t stand a chance. It’s not that they are bad managers – in fact, all have over 10 years’ service with no significant performance issues. However, Rob feels none of them have had the necessary experience or skills needed to take the business where it needs to go, and he doesn’t have the luxury (or time) to get them there. After all, according to Rob “Jack Welch said one of his biggest mistakes as a leader was not moving fast enough”.

He’s gone to HR to explore removal options, and he’s running into resistance. HR says because there is no previous documentation of any performance problems, each of the managers must be put on six month action plans, with measurable improvement milestones, and given access to training and coaching. While his boss (the VP) supports Rob, his bosses boss is concerned Rob is being too aggressive. “That’s just not the way we do things around here”, he said.

Rob is frustrated. He thought he had a mandate to drive change and turn a poorly performing operation around. Now he’s not so sure, and doesn’t know what to do next.

What would you do if you were Rob? What, if anything did he do wrong? What advice would you give Rob, or any manager in a similar situation? Is there a “rule of thumb” regarding how long a manager should wait to make changes when taking over a new team?

Here's the advice from "the experts":

From Dan McCarthy (written before I read the other answers):

Rob may have misread the organization’s culture and tried to push too hard too soon. It also sounds like his boss’s boss and HR are not on board with his plans.  Here’s what I would recommend to Rob:
1. Talk to your boss about getting his/her boss on board with your plans, as well as HR. Perhaps the four of you can sit down with a performance and potential matrix and come up with a consensus assessment of your management team and action plans.

2. For the managers who are seen as having long-term potential, make sure they know where they stand. Get them involved in creating and implementing your vision and creating robust individual development plans.
3. For the other managers, have a respectful yet honest discussion with them about where they stand and work with them develop action plans and provide them the support they deserve. Give them 6 months to meet your expectations or find new roles – they’ve earned that.

4. Begin to recruit the talent you need and bring them in at a higher level. Make sure you hire managers who can coach and are willing to develop your managers who end up staying.

From Art Petty:

I’ve been “New Guy Rob” before, and I appreciate the dilemma. The burning issue of solving the “underperforming” problem is running head-on into the organization’s discomfort with rapid change.

For future reference, Rob must recognize that he erred on the front-end of the transaction by not gaining a clear understanding of the mandate and support for change from his new bosses. Having said that, my recommendation is for Rob to focus his energies on strategy and execution and spend a bit more time (90 days to six months) objectively assessing the talent he inherited. He might just be surprised.

The “rush to replace” is almost instinctive for new leaders and often wrong. Rob does not have a clear view to the capabilities of each of the managers, and is better served focusing on resetting strategy, execution and operations, and assessing talent as he goes. Some managers thrive with new challenges and others show their weaknesses or lack of commitment. Additionally, strategy must drive talent needs…not Rob’s gut-level assessment of people.

Bottom-line: focus on the business Rob. Assess talent under fire, involve your bosses and HR in the strategy work and on-going talent assessment, and then make fast, fair, informed decisions.

From Mary Jo Asmus:

Rob appears to have assumed that his mandate and timeline for organizational change was more urgent to him than to his senior management; he should clarify the timeline. He should also look at himself for the answers to this dilemma.

Two key words that describe Rob in this scenario caught my attention: “passion” and “aggressiveness”. Both traits when over used can show up in behaviors like impatience and forcefulness, a deadly combination that can derail a leader. I fear Rob may exhibit these traits.

Rob has rendered an opinion of his employees on his own, without significant documented performance issues. If they are managed and coached well (by Rob) he might find that they are the right people for the bus. He’ll need to exercise some patience in his expectations.
I would advise Rob to be open about his employees’ potential and hire a coach for himself to assist him in tempering his aggressiveness and find new ways to lead these employees. He might be surprised at what they are capable of.  If any of them don’t measure up, he should work with HR on the performance issues.

From Steve Roesler

At least two things are going on organizationally:

1. HR is being diligent, not resistant. No prior documentation invites legal action.

2. The boss’s boss: “We don’t do that.” Rob is learning something about the culture and, perhaps, why things were the way they were in the first place.

I’d roll with the 6-month plan and be clear about the consequences of no change in performance. I’d also be touching base with potential candidates during that time.

I don’t see anything blatantly wrong. Given the task, Rob might have asked the VP (during his interview) if there was strong support from the big boss,

I’d advise others to be clear in advance about what’s possible, what’s not, and how each will impact the ability to make rapid changes. Rob now needs an agreed-upon Plan B for what will happen after six months and what kinds of results to expect in the meantime.

Rob took time to meet with the direct reports as well as review performance data. That’s a solid rule of thumb. The corporate “rule of thumb,” however, trumped Rob’s. This highlights how important it is to dig deeply before signing on to spearhead a “quick change.”

From Jennifer Miller:

It’s a good start: you’ve quickly assessed your operation; now you have a road-map for your journey.   Unfortunately, you want to use a Ferrari to arrive at your destination and it appears that key players in your firm would rather you use a skateboard.
You may have a mandate to shake things up, but right now, not everyone is “on the bus” with this idea. You’ve joined an organization with several layers of structure, not an entrepreneurial start-up, so be patient. I’ve seen many ambitious newly-hired leaders whose plans went down in flames because they were too focused on achieving results now. It’s not enough to have a solid plan; you need allies who will support the plan.

My advice:
Get clear about who holds the power in your organization. It may be true that your boss is supportive, but what kind of sway does his boss hold? If he’s resistant, you’ve got to show him how your plan benefits the company. Also— don’t underestimate HR’s unique type of power. They are the gatekeepers of company policy. Circumvent them, and they’ll make your life miserable.

Bottom line: Don’t abandon your plan. Rather, consider adjusting your timeline.

From Scott Eblin:

Rob appears to be a victim of a growing epidemic among corporate leaders.  They’re so busy doing that they can’t see what really needs to be done.   Instead of spending his first month figuring out who to fire, Rob needed to be casting his net more broadly to learn what other key stakeholders expect of his organization.  Rob is not the only person who gets to define what success looks like for his organization.  He needs to pay attention to what others think and then build a plan from there.
Once he has a clear picture of where he needs to go, he needs to then come up with a longer range plan for matching the talent of his team to the results needed in the future.  That’s likely going to mean sequencing the changes.  Is he really going to be able to find four ready now replacements at the same time?  Unlikely.  Would he be better off to key in on critical, immediate priorities for raising the quality of his team?  Likely.  And while he’s at it, he needs to get close to the head of HR.  He’s going to need support there.

From John Baldoni:

Move and move quickly, yes indeed!

Unfortunately Rob is on an island by himself and if he moves he will be in the water surrounded by sharks.

The underlying issue is not Rob; it’s his boss. Rob does not have the support he needs to effect change and for that reason he has two options: one, live with the status quo; or two, leave.

Rob could seek to bring in a one or two new executives to show the current team what it needs to do. Sometimes new blood can have a transformative effect on the organization. But would not bank on a miracle.

Rob’s credibility is at stake. He cannot effect the change he needs to effect without the support of his boss. That is not forthcoming so I would advise that Rob take his talents elsewhere.

Note: Jack Welch was an insider; he knew what levers to pull at GE. Rob has no such influence. He is a round peg trying to fit into a square hole.

OK, so you've heard from the Roundtable "experts". Now, here's your chance to cast your vote and pick your favorite answer:

Of course, feel free to add your own expert advice as a comment. Check back in a week to see which answer was the reader's favorite, and thanks for playing The Leadership Development Roundtable Challenge!


Anonymous said...

There is nothing wrong with Rob's approach, it just clearly doesn't fit in with the culture of the organization, as some of you've said.

Rob's frustration though is concerning. When faced with constraints (as leaders often are), it's our job to find alternative paths for progress.

My concern would be that he might not give the managers a fair shot, and just the treat the next 6 months as a show, before he lets these managers go.

It's great that Rob is aggressive, and decisive, he just needs to operate within the constraints.

Andrew Meyer said...

Interesting and fun situation.

Gamblers have a saying, you've got to play with the cards that you're dealt. The quality of the player is not judged by how they do when they hold all the aces, but rather, by how they do with mediocre or poor hands, which is what you get 60 to 70% of the time.

No mention was made of budget, but if Rob has two people he can work with, maybe he can bring in one other ally. Expelling other people is likely to do more harm than good.

Next Rob needs to look at what can realistically be done, determine how that will be measured and get everyone on-board with that. It's much easier to get everyone to agree on a destination than to agree on a path. If everyone agrees on the destination, then he can start working on the path.

Then, if he's worth his salt, he'll execute the plan and evaluate it by the success metrics he agreed upon with his superiors.

Tim G said...

All good responses, I really like Art's advice to focus on strategy and execution before he expends too much energy trying to get people "off the bus."

To continue the bus metaphor, I would venture that Rob does not yet have a great sense of:
- Exactly where the bus is going
- The types of roads they'll be travelling on
- The speed and reliability of the bus

Until he knows more about what exactly he's trying to accomplish, and what it will look like to do it, it seems premature to presume to know exactly who the "right" people are.

Ron Carter said...

I cannot assume anything is wrong with Rob. Maybe Rob is the "one" with insight. Maybe he does not need over-analysis to prove what he already knows. I am not sure of the industry but most organizations really cannot afford to do in 3 years what could be done in 6 months. I am sure Jack W., Lou G. and John C. were all called “impatient” before hindsight re-classified them as “visionary leaders”. The harsh reality is that while Rob does not have the support or endorsement to move forward, he will ultimately be held accountable for a lack of results (even though he was held back to begin with – revisionist history usually sees to that).
Have we all not seen this before? Organizations with their 8th or 9th Ops lead in 8 or 9 years. Underperforming organizations while comparative competitors thrive in the same market? If technology or a lack of competitive advantage can hold back an organization - can not the culture? Do we not want change and improvement as long as the doctor prescribes meds? Do we not struggle with change management when the good doc tells us to "exercise" and "eat right"?
This is a competitive economy regardless of industry and the simple fact is that not all companies will survive the long term. When companies fail there is never a lack of critics armed with blame cannons, but in the end in-action is not a proper leadership strategy. The proper resource management of people, process and technology are the blocking and tackling of business and “people” seem to remain the hardest resource for organizations to muster the managerial courage to properly manage. Anyone can make the easy and obvious choices.
While I am not endorsing “real impatience” and while speed can never be confused with “recklessness” a heightened pace ought not be immediately dismissed as “aggressive”.

IT Bartender

Sharlyn Lauby said...

I really enjoyed reading the challenge. Very interesting to see everyone’s perspectives on this issue.

Like Art, I’ve been in the “new manager with a mandate” situation a few times myself. From my experience, here’s a another dynamics that can happen: I agree that Rob might have forgotten the “there’s a new manager in town and these are my expectations” conversation. But he was given a mandate. Rob should remember that sometimes change comes with loneliness and frustration.

If the other managers don’t buy-into Rob’s new vision, there can come a point where they are viewed as keeping him from his goal. And they potentially become the problem instead of the voice of reason.

Seth Brickner said...

Good comments from all the experts; I particularly like Scott Elbin's comments - on target and succinct.

I disagree with those who say there's essentially nothing wrong with Rob's approach. Even if Rob did nothing else but assess his direct report managers during his first 30 days on the job, there is no way he could accurately assess the potential of six people in 30 days (remember that's 21 - 23 business days, or less than four days per person). Before terminating anybody, he owes the courtesy of an accurate assessment of potential to those who've given over 10 years of service to the company.

Given the comment that these managers "all have over 10 years’ service with no significant performance issues" and that this appears to have satisfied Rob's boss's boss, I'd say Rob has a lot more observing, assessing and thinking to do before replacing anybody. These managers have demonstrated that they are capable of living up to senior management's previous expectations; it's both stupid and naive to believe that in less than four days you're able to prove that someone won't be able to perform to a new set of expectations.

It sounds to me like Rob is in such a rush to implement change (thereby justifying his new position) that he's not willing to perform the due diligence of coaching to develop the talent of the existing team. If, after six months of coaching to a well-defined personal development plan Rob still feels that the managers are not trainable, he may have a valid case to take to HR.

Until that time, HR needs to hold firm to their position and prevent "Mr.30-Days" from circumventing his responsibility of developing the existing talent and maximizing the company's current resources before tossing out over 60 years of dedicated service and knowledge.

Dan McCarthy said...

Al, Andrew, Tim, Ron, Sharlyn, Seth -
Your comments and advice are awesome! It's so hard not to respond, but I don't want to bias the voters. The diversity of responses speaks to the challenge of leadership - it's not always black and white.
The scenerio, as you may have guessed, is based on a true story.

S. Wagner said...

In addition to the good comments and advice offered by the Roundtable hosts, I'd have Rob work on his leadership presence. Resistance is inherent to leadership, and his "frustration" with the initial outcomes might take him out of the game by making himself the issue. He'd serve himself well by being the least emotionally reactive person in this situation.

sunil saraf said...

There is a value add from all the experts but Scott Eblin's observation is nearest to the right diagnosis of the situation. My observation is

Rob pushes himself to be owner of success of the organisation. He mistakenly believes that panacea lies in firing the guys and to be replaced by new set of guys. This leads to additional cost in terms of time and money without any assurance of right results.

Rob has wrong notion that the problem is due to people and has overlooked other areas such as business structure, model, processes, business strategy etc.

A good leader tries to make best of the given situation/resources before asking for additional or alternate resources. A SWOT analysis of the organisation and its people is must and the duty of the Rob should be to lay down success principles and evaluate each of the personnel on these before taking decision to opt for new resources.

Seth Brickner said...

Absolutely, Sunil! Well put.

Laura Schroeder said...

Rob sounds like a bit of a jerk. I'm all for getting rid of underperformers but he comes in from outside and makes his decision to fire people who have contributed based on a couple of conversations. Where's his plan? Has he communicated it and told people what they need to do to be on board? Has he given them a chance to meet his goals? 'Fire everyone and start from scratch with some vague plan' does not a strategy make. Or a leader.

Dan McCarthy said...

S Wagner, Sunil, Seth, Laura -
Thanks for your contributions! As you can see, the results are in. Please come back and contribute to the next challange on July 13th.