The one decision you'll never regret.

Are you tackling your one-in-four?

I was talking recently with a CEO about a difficult member of her team, and the tough call she is probably going to have to make. I asked her to recount similar decisions she’d made in the past, and how they had turned out.

She gave me several examples, each with a very positive outcome, before hesitatingly telling me of one where she wasn’t sure she’d made the right call. The person she’d fired had gone on to successfully lead another business, and several years down the line she’d met him again. “He was a completely different guy. I don’t know if I fired him too soon, or if it was being fired that made him the success he is now. Perhaps I’ll never know.”

It’s not a clear-cut case, but in ten years of conversations with CEOs, it’s the first time I’ve heard of someone who may genuinely have been fired too soon. On the other hand, I’ve heard dozens, if not hundreds of accounts, of people wishing they’d acted sooner, regretting they’d left it so long before pulling the trigger. I might finally have found the exception, but I absolutely stand by the rule:

Fire bad managers quickly – they will only cost you good people.

In my experience, about one in four managers are holding their people back and damaging the business as a result. How do I get to one in four? Because, in my early days as a consultant I noticed a disturbing pattern. In almost a quarter of my engagements, within six months of finishing, the lead person I’d been working with, nearly always someone of real talent and potential, would leave the business. It worried me so much that I tracked several of them down to find out what had happened, why they’d left, and whether I could have done anything differently.

It turned out it had nothing to do with my approach. The feedback I got was eerily similar. The individual in question had felt frustrated within their team, disempowered by their boss, and had jumped at the chance to work on a more interesting, more autonomous project. After the project ended, returning to their old team felt even more claustrophobic, and at that point they knew they needed to leave. When I went back to those clients and asked about the managers in question, only one of them had since been exited from the business. Most were still there, most of them were “known issues”, and most of what I heard were reasons why “now isn’t the right time to address it.”

There’s a reason we delay firing managers whom we know need to go, the scientific evidence for which is extensive. Behavioural economists have nattily entitled it “hyperbolic discounting”, which essentially means we all have a subtle but powerful in-built preference for smaller immediate rewards over slower, longer-term gains, however poor those choices may seem in retrospect.

The benefit of not having to deal with that horrible conversation, the potentially tortuous HR process, the vacancy it will immediately introduce; seems far more attractive than the benefit of removing a poor performer, or a culturally corrosive, but high performing individual, and the positive impact it will have on the wider team. The short-term anxiety outweighs the long-term opportunity, right up until the problem escalates so much it demands immediate action.

But the brutal truth is this: every day you delay, costs you engagement, team performance, and potentially your most ambitious talent. Every day you tacitly endorse them, by not addressing the issue, eats away at your culture and values as an organisation, and undermines your credibility as a leader.

If you want to harvest apples, the best time to plan an apple tree is twenty years ago, but the next best time is right now. The same is true for removing poor managers, and for harvesting the fruit of talent and goodwill that will spring forth as a result.