#38 How Ruthless Should You Be?

by Steven Cerri on September 18, 2007

How much time is the right time to train an employee?

Today I was talking to a VP at a client company. We were discussing the difficulty in hiring and training people to fit into a job. The time it takes for them to fit the culture, to fit the job requirements, to fit with the customers… all that fitting that has to take place can take 9 months to a year. And then if you’ve hired the wrong person some companies don’t decide to let the person go until another 6 months or more have gone by. The VP was bemoaning the fact that it seems so difficult to hire the right person for the job these days.

This line of the conversation got me thinking about something that I have seen over and over in my career and in some cases I’ve experienced first hand from both the giving and the receiving side of the fence. And that is, “How ruthless should a manager be when it becomes increasingly clear that an employee may not work out?”

We’ve all heard the quote attributed to Jack Welch and other famous managers and that is, when asked the biggest mistakes they’ve made in their management career, they have answered, “Not firing someone soon enough.”

Now the idea here is that it’s important and useful to be “ruthless”. Ruthless in a way that says, “I can make the tough decisions when I have to.”

Now I’ve known and do know executives who are not ruthless at all. In fact they have a very difficult time firing anybody. They wait and prolong the firing far beyond the point where everyone in the company knows it should happen. The very interesting thing is that these companies did not suffer from that behavior. Everyone knew that the company had a big heart and a long fuse and just accepted it as the way the organization worked.

On the other hand, I’ve known and know executives who have a very short fuse and fire very quickly when it is clear the employee may not work out. While their company’s bottom line doesn’t seem to move up or down, the moral does seem to dip a little and never quite recover. But then again, that executive is not so interested in moral. If he or she was, they wouldn’t be so quick to be ruthless.

Now my point is not to pass judgment on the kind nor the ruthless executive. Right now I’m just commenting on what is out there. What I want to talk about is the continuum and the implications. Here is what I mean.

Imagine at one end of a continuum is the executive who is slow to fire. Patient, trusting, and prone to give the benefit of the doubt is this executive’s mantra. We’ll call this the Patient side of the continuum.

At the other end of the continuum is the executive who is quick to fire if the person is not working out. They are impatient and quick to react to less than adequate performance. We’ll call this the Ruthless side of the continuum.

And then there is that range in between those two extremes of the continuum where most of the executives and managers of the world live.

I now want to connect the dots… I want to connect this continuum to management, leadership, and entrepreneurship.

Most managers live on the Patient side of the continuum. They attempt to hire the right people and then they tend to train and coach the employees in the hopes that they will become good solid performers.

Many leaders live on either side of this continuum as do many entrepreneurs.

However, there is a breed of entrepreneurs, executives, and leaders that live on the end of the continuum…. at the ruthless end. And their behaviors are very distinct and evident. They treat employees like gears in a watch. If they find a gear and it doesn’t fit they don’t send the gear to be re-machined so it can function in the watch. They simply throw away the gear and get another gear and try it. If it doesn’t work they throw that gear out and get another one. They keep doing this until they find a gear that works.

Notice that this approach really makes the entrepreneur responsible for only one thing… picking the gear. They are not responsible for managing the employee. The employee is supposed to come fully competent and capable of doing the required job. If not, well we must have picked the wrong person… NEXT candidate!

This then is the dilemma, especially of small businesses, because small businesses would like to behave like the ruthless entrepreneur. Small businesses don’t have the time or money to carry people who are not producing. And yet, small business are not prone to behaving in a ruthless manner to their employees.

This then is the tug that goes on in small businesses. You’ve seen them. The manager who, on the one hand, would like to be ruthless and shows it with the blustering “bark” of someone who would fire an employee at the drop of a hat and, on the other hand, won’t actually “bite” and take action to fire the under-performing employee. As a small business owner, manager, executive, or leader, the following steps will help.

The first step is to analyze how you and your company treat this issue… the issue of employees not turning out the way you’d hoped.

The second step is to become clear about the company’s and your tolerance for being ruthless. You may want to be ruthless from a financial point of view, but won’t go there because of your values.

The third step is to be very clear regarding the expectations you have about employee performance and convey that information to employees in clear and certain terms.

The fourth step is to put in place a time line for the company, the specific employee under consideration, and their manager so that everyone knows when the decision point is being approached.

The fifth step is to “future pace” your decision so you will clearly understand the implications of a ruthless decision if it has to be made.

The sixth step is to make the decision, if necessary, and follow through.

The final seventh step is to assess the consequences of the decision and adjust going forward if necessary.

I’m not saying that I favor being ruthless. It’s not my style. But for any of you working at the higher levels in an organization it’s a part of life. When an employee is young and lacks experience, they are given a great deal of leeway, training, and coaching in order to become competent. However, as the employee’s career progresses certain assumptions are made about their abilities. At the level of the senior manager or executive, it is assumed that they are competent and they can “drop into a position” and be left alone to succeed. If they perform, wonderful. If they don’t, it can be “asta la vista, baby”.

In my career, I’ve used several of the steps I listed above many, many, many times. I’ve only used ALL of them twice, meaning I didn’t often have to be ruthless. I was lucky I guess…. I had a knack for turning people who didn’t seem to work out when they reported to others… into star performers when they reported to me… the steps and the process really do work.

Be well,

Steven Cerri

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