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

Question: I am a sales manager for a business services firm in Minneapolis. I am responsible for all new business revenue for my company and I have 5 sales people that work for me. Of the 5 sales people only one is a star performer. The issue I am having is he breaks all the rules and creates really bad relationships with all the other people in the company. I am on the senior team and the rest of them are angry that this keeps happening. While I don't like to hear the comments from the senior team, I am aware that I cannot make my numbers goals and the company can't make there's 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 determine 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 what ever you do, you will be in total alignment with what is best for the business overall.

In this situation you have identified the fact that in order to make your business unit's goals and the company's, you need this employee. That is a big step and oftentimes leaders become so emotionally charged by such situations they act before they consider the goals and objectives of the company or the department. I commend you for your forethought. Typically leaders who do this are considered high in emotional intelligence. This has been shown to be one of the key components in assessing one's long term success in their career.

The next step is to understand the position you and your company are in. 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 culture of the organization. Is this type of behavior is 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 then soon after said, 'keep making us money.' What they were stealing was minor compared to what they were making the company. He knew that if he took action, he would stop his revenue machine that he needed because it was his end goal. It also gave permission to the others that if they were that good at making money for the company they could steal from the company as well. It was the outcome they got, should not have been a surprise. This is the extreme case of the terrorist working for the company - and it was exaggerated by a lack of moral compass by the leadership. In the case you present, it is apparent that this behavior is contrary to what the leadership tolerates 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, then it is good to come down to 10,000 foot perspective and see if "you" have complicity in the situation. To be frank, and I hate doing this in a column where I can't ask qualifying questions, but 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, if you had stopped the behavior cold, this would never have happened. I say this because the solution, whatever one you choose, 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 Ė 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 are not capable to do the function. Ask three questions to determine what choice to make. The 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 anyone of of these questions is NO, the decision is chosen, you need to let this person go. The decision is, as Donald Trump would say, You're Fired!

It is unclear from your description if the employee has the capacity to change behavior, so I will assume that he is rather good at what he does for your organization and likely has the ability to change. It is clear that for your number one producer you should have the resources and time to help him come into alignment with the company. The bigger issue is that of motivation. Often times a terrorist does not feel the threat of what can happen to them if they don't start falling in to line. They have become fat, and happy and arrogant! This arrogance is what blocks their ability to realize that they need to change. The company has reached a point where it can no longer tolerate this kind of behavior.

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

In almost all other circumstances the move would surely be to fire, but because this employee mean so much to the organizations health as far as revenue.

The last part of understanding our position is to understand whose decision is it to make, and what needs to be done. If the consequences of your actions will compromise 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 actually be the team's or the CEO's call, given its importance to the organization.

This is truly a strategic decision then, it is not simply letting one person go, it is letting many people go, if one presumes in a service firm, lower revenue means fewer employees 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 principled stance on the issue over that of revenue? Are we clear what the outcome of this will be to 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 sales person? 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 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. Executing three plans simultaneously.

Plan "A" You will need to continue coaching the employee towards the behavior that is in alignment with the firmís 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 loose your dependence on this terrorist, and operationalize Plan "C" and start the recruiting process for the possible if not probable replacement of the employee.

It is important that the others on the senior team and your sales team 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 persons behavior sink the culture the company wants to build.

Submitted by:

Gary B Cohen

Gary B. Cohen is co-founder of CO2 Partners. He is an Executive Coach for leaders of fast growing organizations. Gary was President and co-founder of one of the fastest growing publicly traded companies in Minnesota, going from 2 to 2,200 employees, starting with only $4,000. He serves on many for profit and non-profit boards. He can be reached at http://www.co2partners.com or http://co2leadership.blogspot.com.




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