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Ask Don't Tell Leadership - What If I Lose Control of My Staff as A Leader?

Layne McDonald. Ph.D.


A good leader thinks seriously about both the integrity of management and the management of integrity. — Michael Josephson

Question: I am a sales manager for a business services firm in Minneapolis. I manage all new business revenue for my company, and I have five salespeople that work for me. Of the five salespeople, only one is a star performer. The issue I am having is that he breaks all the rules and creates terrible relationships with all the other people in the company. I am on the senior team, and the rest are angry that this keeps happening. While I do not like to hear the comments from the senior team, I am aware that I cannot make my number of goals, and the company cannot drive there for the year without him. What do I do?

Answer: I call this a terrorist! A terrorist is someone who knows what they have on you, and they use it to hold you and everyone else in the company hostage to their behavior. I like to take my clients through an exercise of understanding the Goal, Position, and Strategy Questions to decide what actions need to be done.

The first question I ask is, "What is the goal around the problem?" This is to ensure that we are aiming at the right issue. What I invite my clients to do is to first reflect on the organization's overall goal. Then link that to the current situation. This way, whatever you do, you will align with what is best for the business overall.

In this situation, you have found that you need this employee to achieve your business unit's and company’s goals. That is a big step, and often leaders become so emotionally charged by such situations that they act before considering the company's or department's goals and aims. I commend you for your forethought. Typically, leaders who do this are considered high in emotional intelligence. This is one of the critical components in assessing one's long-term success in their career.

The next step is understanding your and your company's position. Elevate to 50,000-foot level to see the whole situation. Go beyond yourself and ask, "How did this begin to happen? Sometimes we might find the root cause built into the organization's culture. Is this type of behavior tolerated here?

In the case of Enron, when the CEO learned that two of the traders were stealing from the company, he did nothing and said, 'keep making us money.' What they were stealing was minor compared to what they were making the company. He knew that if he acted, he would stop the revenue machine he needed because it was his end goal. It also allowed the others to steal from the company if they were that good at making money for the company. It was the outcome they got should not have been a surprise. This is an extreme case of the terrorist working for the company, which was exaggerated by the leadership's lack of moral compass. In the case you present, this behavior is contrary to what the leadership tolerates and is searching for from a behavior.

Once you go up to the 50,000-foot level and see if the company has had complicity in the situation, it is good to come down to a 10,000-foot perspective and see if "you" collaborate on the case. I hate doing this in an email where I cannot ask qualifying questions; it is hard to imagine that you did not allow this to happen. It is not about absolving the terrorist from his behavior because that is wrong. However, this would never have happened if you had stopped the behavior cold. I say this because whatever you choose, the solution will need to involve your being mentored or coached into creating boundaries for your team. Without these boundaries, you will be faced with this issue again.

The third part of our position investigation is to go to ground level, meaning the situation itself. When we find ourselves in this type of situation with an employee, we only have two choices, we can either fire or teach. If an employee makes a mistake, it is because we did not teach them correctly or because they cannot do the function. Ask three questions to decide what choice to make. First, is the employee capable of learning? Secondly, does the organization or I have the time and resources available to train this employee? Lastly, is this employee motivated to learn and change? If you answer any of these questions NO, the decision is chosen; you must let this person go. The decision is, as Donald Trump would say, You're Fired!

It is unclear from your description if the employee can than their age behavior, so I will assume that he is good at what he does for your organization and can change. You should have the resources and time to help your number one producer align with the company. The more significant issue is that of motivation. Often, terrorists do not feel the threat of what can happen to them if they do not start falling into line. They have become fat, happy, and arrogant! This arrogance blocks their ability to realize that they need to change. The company has reached a point where it can no longer tolerate this behavior.

Unlike Donald's TV Drama, we live in the real world, and letting him go is not a great first choice, given the company's dependence on his revenue.

In all other circumstances, the move would surely be to fire, but we are looking at alternative options because this employee means so much to the organization’s health about revenue.

The last part of understanding our position is to understand whose decision it is to make and what needs to be done. If the consequences of your actions compromised the strategic direction of the company, I would invite you to consider involving the senior team and that the responsibility is yours to deal with it, and the final decision may be the team's or the CEO's call, given its importance to the organization.

This is truly a strategic decision, not simply letting one person go. It allows people; if one presumes in a service firm, lower revenue means fewer employees are needed to service the customers.

At this point, I would coach you to have a conversation with your CEO and the rest of the strategic team and tell them the steps that you are considering, and ask these strategic questions: At what point as an organization are we willing to take a moral stance on the issue over that of revenue? Are we clear about what this outcome will be for our other employees? Will we need to do cost-cutting to compensate for this move? What will the industry see from losing our most talented salesperson? Will he go work for our competition? What impact will that have on your company? By working through these strategic issues as an organization and lifting this issue to its proper place in the senior team - you will be aligning everyone to be part of the process and stop complaining about it.

By going through these questions, the conclusion you may arrive at the end of this process is that you use a three-pronged approach to dealing with this situation. You are executing three plans simultaneously.

Plan "A" You will need to continue coaching the employee toward the behavior aligned with the firm’s values, beliefs, and rules.

Plan "B," at the same time, I would highly recommend moving the rest of the sales team to a higher level to lose your dependence on this terrorist and operationalize Plan "C" and start the recruiting process for the possible if not probable replacement of the employee.

The others on the senior team and your sales team must know that you are coaching this employee in these areas of behavior and that it is not sitting OK with you. But no more information than that - it is inappropriate to say more than that in a public setting. It will build your credibility as a leader and not allow one person’s behavior to sink the culture the company wants to make.


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