What is the biggest mistake you ever made in the area of leading people?
The number one answer, according to a report by Ram Charan, Consultant and former Harvard Business School professor, is “waiting too long to remove a direct report who wasn’t matched to the job.”
I made that mistake as a first time manager at the YMCA. I had a swim instructor who was wonderful and got rave reviews from all the parents, but he had a reliability problem.
The YMCA was in Bloomington, IN during the reign of Bobby Knight, and you could count on the fact that anytime there was a basketball game or a concert, he wouldn’t show up for lifeguarding shifts. I gave him lots of chances before I finally let him go.
When I did, the other staff all thought my boss had prevented me from firing him. That wasn’t the case. The reluctance to fire him was my fault. I lacked the managerial courage to do what needed to be done.
There are three reasons that we justify not firing people who aren’t a fit.
(1) I can fix them. We rationalize that with enough coaching, or discussions, or encouragement, they’ll turn it around. While that is a noble approach, it soon becomes apparent when they can’t be “fixed”.
(2) Better the devil I know than the one I don’t. This was my reasoning. It was hard to find great instructors, so I lived with his faults until I got too frustrated. I was afraid I wouldn’t find anyone as good at teaching as he was. That fear should have been a clue – and has now become a sign that I need to step back and reflect on the situation.
(3) He/she isn’t really hurting the team. I can also own this one. I didn’t understand the negative impact his behavior and my failure to hold him accountable was having on my team. Once the young man was released, team morale improved over time. Staff began to trust that everyone would be held accountable – equally.
Leaders of integrity set high expectations, work with staff to achieve those expectations, and hold ALL staff accountable for their work. They also quickly move to replace people who aren’t a fit, and they hire someone who has a high level of competence, character, and interpersonal skills.
As a first time manager, that lesson about holding employees accountable was a powerful one and has paid huge benefits in every position I’ve held since then.