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A Leadership Screwdriver: The 90-Day Improvement Plan

Layne McDonald. Ph.D.

“To be an ethical leader is indeed to be different. This kind of leader acknowledges the complexity of running a responsible business yet tries to do it anyway.” 
― Andrew Leigh, Ethical Leadership: Creating and Sustaining an Ethical Business Culture

I was talking with first-line supervisors in a utility company about dealing with poorly performing employees. 

"You've got to put the screws to him!" suggested one supervisor to his colleague who was having trouble managing one poor performer. 

We all knew what "putting the screws to him" meant -- using rewards and punishments to force behavior change.

The trouble is that rewards and punishments are the least effective ways of dealing with poor performers. That is because poor performers are usually intelligent, motivated, and tenacious -- when it comes to poor performing. 

To change the behavior of poor performers, avoid the outside-in approach of rewards and punishments and cultivate an inside-out approach. 

Aesop understood that. There is Aesop's fable of the wind and sun competing to see who can remove a coat from a man. The wind tries to blow the skin off, but the man clutches it tightly to his body. Then the sun grows hotter, and the man, sweating heavily and getting hotter and hotter, gladly rips the coat off. 

The leadership lesson is clear: You can bluster and blow to get somebody to conduct a task, but that is not as effective as setting up a situation in which the person gladly does it. 

Here is a way to deal with poor performers using Aesop's lesson: the 90-Day Improvement Plan. A business leader tells me that he uses such plans as tools for change. Each plan forms two paths. 

"Be specific about improvement," he says. "For instance, one leader I gave an Improvement Plan to was very bright but was not getting results. He tended to deal with future, strategic issues, while our business wants results now, preferably yesterday. We identified specific ways he could improve his performance in getting results, such as precise calls and exact, quick-closing targets to pursue."

90-Day Improvement Plans should not aim to get rid of people. "Their objective is the first page pointing out that the individual must improve and the second page detailing the precise ways that improvement must impact performance," he says. "Though I do write on the first page, 'If the objectives are not met, further actions, including dismissal, can be taken.'"

He sometimes combines Improvement Plans with the forced ranking of all his leaders into a 20/60/20 continuum. The bottom 20 percent get the plan. He says, "My objective is to have the bottom 20 percent be indispensable leaders." 


In developing a 90-day Improvement Plan, keep Aesop's fable in mind and look for not compliance but commitment. The Improvement Plan must not be imposed from without but agreed upon. Here is a four-step process to do that. 

First, all parties must agree to develop a 90-Day Improvement Plan. If people are forced to do it, it will not work as it should. 

Second, ask the poor performers to describe what should be in it. Remember, you can veto any suggestions. However, it is best if its key components come from other people. Only after they have run out of tips do you incorporate yours. 

Third, develop the plan together, and agree on its action steps. 

Fourth, implement it. Have weekly or bi-weekly meetings to ensure the plan is being conducted. 

If the plan is forced upon someone, it becomes just another screw, another imposed reward or punishment. However, if it is put together with mutual consent and enthusiasm, it becomes the screwdriver by which poor performers may gladly put the screws into themselves.

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