The Myth of the Turnaround Employee

by Mario on October 24, 2009

in Business,General Leadership,Learning,Opinion

turnaroundI cant remember how often I’ve heard stories like the one I just heard from a good friend of mine.  He had introduced me to a person who by all accounts was courteous and professional and an all-around good guy.  After he left the room I got “The Story.”  We’ve all heard it too many times.  It starts off with this phrase or something similar: “That guy used to be such a problem…”  or  “I really didn’t like her when she first reported to work for me back in 95…” and then they lay it on you: how through considerable effort and some good old-fashined mentoring, the person finally got it and turned around and “now look at them.”  They are productive and have advanced to management or leadership positions themselves.  Another save.  Heartwarming, isn’t it?  ….Well, it just makes me want to smack somebody.

The unaccounted for variable in all these stories, from the “look what my caring leadership and mentoring has produced” series, are the other ten people that worked for you back in 95. What happened to them?  What happened to your top three performers that you ignored while you were paying attention to your fixer-upper?  Because something definitely happened to them – while you may have thought you were doing a good and noble thing, I personally believe you screwed up royal.  If you have one of these stories of your own – then you might have fallen victim to the three myths of the turnaround employee:

Myth #1:

Your top performers don’t need attention – they are already doing a great job. Entirely untrue:  John James was right: The deepest human need is to be appreciated.  Like or not, that time and attention – including closed door mentoring sessions with your worst – was noticed (and noticeably absent) from your best.  What the top three learned from you back in 95 was that it didn’t mater how well they performed, your attention was reserved for the  person they were taking up the slack for.  Instead of getting better, instead of thinking they we’re invaluable, instead of knowing they we’re delivering the best of what you needed – they felt at least moderately ignored.  Perhaps that’s why they moved on to another firm in 98?   The ten minutes you spent with them trying to talk them out of it was more time than they had gotten in years – and was too little too late.

Myth #2

Direct attention and mentoring is what under-performers need most. Hogwash.  If managed correctly, poor performance is a self-correcting behavior.  What if we flipped the model?  What if we took Marcus Buckinghams advice and largely ignored the bad performers in favor of time and attention to the best?  Gallups research of top performing managers shows that this is exactly what they do.  The under-performers have the opportunity to see what is working for the others, and either get on board – or get gone.  Pay attention to what you want most and you get it.

Myth #3:

Its my job to train and bring ALL on my team up to speed; even the bad ones. Myth three sounds good – and I would agree  – except it isn’t actually possible.  Or, at least it isn’t possible by “fixing” the bad ones.  Even in organizations where you are at the mercy of recruiting or HR, it is a myth that you need everyone on the team to be a good performer.  You actually CAN afford to NOT have the poor performers “get it”.  Everyone else is working harder, and resenting it, because they are on the team (and getting paid – often the same as your best – to be bad at the work). They are taking a spot that might be filled by someone who isn’t slack and everyone knows it.  The faster they get gone, the faster someone else gets a shot.  This doesn’t mean you give up on them entirely, just don’t give them too much of your time.

(Note: Best mentoring available to a poor performer is to point at your top three performers and say “Watch them,….act like that.  Any questions?” then move on.  Hint: let your top three hear you say it.)

Bonus Myth:

The turnaround employee is really that good. Not usually. There is a difference between a great team member, and one that simply doesn’t stink any more.  I’ve met plenty of the “used-to-stink” variety and the only thing remarkable about most of them is that they don’t stink anymore.  What prize does the organization get for all of this quality attention and mentoring required to “save” the also-rans and turn them into – well –  average?  What you get is an ever decreasing pool of top performers.

The number one missing part of any story of the turnaround employee is that for every one  turned around,   at least two that were great already were turned away.  No favors were done to the organization, the mission wasn’t served, and neither was the person you “saved.”  They learned that mediocre is enough.  And now you’ve helped Mediocre advance enough to be in charge, while Great has left the building.  Thanks. But next time – no thank you.

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  • http://intensedebate.com/people/Daren_Lewis Daren_Lewis

    Mario,
    Great post.

    I'd only add one caveat base on my experience with volunteers, you can identify organizational bottlenecks and practices that prevent low performers from reaching middle level performance. This really may not be a caveat because it isn't about individual focus at all, rather it is an organizational focus which looks at an entire population of performance. Also, these folks you unleash by dealing with process or bottlenecks seldom become top 5% performers… your highest performers don't let processes or bottlenecks stand in their way in the first place.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/mvittone Mario Vittone

    Thanks Daren – and I know exactly the bottlenecks you speak of. And I guess that's the larger point. Pay attention to your true talent and they will stay – rise to the top – and not tolerate the systemic failures that hold people back. And your right, top 5%ers do not let process or obstacles stand in their way – but they often go around them by dumping on team for another.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/Daren_Lewis Daren_Lewis

    Agreed! I've certainly seen it happen where top level performers go to someone else's team, another organization or a competitor/

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