Drowning Executives: Are you out of your depth?

"Are you a good 'fit' for this job?"

The author of The Peter Principle, Lawrence J Peters, coined the memorable phrase: ‘Everyone gets promoted to their level of incompetence’. Many of you will have worked for managers who’ve proven the concept! Recognizing underperforming executives is not just a menu item for canteen cynics. It’s a very real phenomenon that has to be recognized and dealt with. Because all organizations, commercial and not for profit, public and private sector, need solid leadership.

Sometimes, not too often, Tandem Consulting are asked to work with an organization trying to fire someone. Typically it involves a senior executive. The person may have performed well at some point and then fallen off the ladder. Or they may have been a poor hire – a square peg to begin with, someone who never fit the particular job. Always we try to manage the process with some dignity for the individual (while it’s difficult to be fired in a dignified way – there are a myriad of undignified ways to do it).

Establish Baselines: The first (diagnostic) step is to establish the baseline. How long is the person in the role? What key skills are required? What positive elements of performance have been demonstrated in the past? Where are the measurable performance gaps? What conversations have been held directly about the presenting issues and did it produce any change? Does the person accept the performance deficit or are they in denial? The $64,000 question: is this ‘fixable’?

Sadly, it’s sometimes the case that the person is the last to know about their underperformance. Senior executives are notorious about shying away from giving feedback – particularly where this is negative. So the person involved often does not see it coming and is typically shocked by the speed of the process. Once this particular train leaves the station, it’s hard to stop the forward momentum. Despite a raft of protective legislation, this is a David vs. Goliath battle – in which the employee normally loses. So, here’s the real trick. Don’t mount a solid defense; avoid getting into this position in the first place.

Managing Perception: Sometimes actual performance becomes confused with perceived performance. Perhaps you’ve forgotten to ‘tell the world how great you are’. You could take a leaf out of Marketing 101 as suggested by Lord Leverhume, the founder of Lever Brothers who said…

When you whisper down a well,
About the goods you have to sell
You’ll never make as many dollars
As he who climbs a tree and hollers

Anticipating Danger: Let’s assume that you are good on the internal marketing front and have covered off on this. How can you determine if you are still swimming out of your depth? The following checklist lists the usual warning signs. Go on, take the test. You know you want to!

Am I Out of my Depth?
1. Informal feedback has signaled ‘some concerns’.
2. You have recently missed key deadlines.
3. Your performance rating has slipped this year.
4. Your € bonus has been frozen.
5. The customer defection rate is heading north.
6. You sometimes lose sleep thinking about work.
7. Peers stop talking when you enter a room.
8. You are feeling tired a lot of the time.
9. You don’t get invited to lunch.
10. You hate Sundays (thinking about work).
11. You constantly moan about your boss.
12. You question the organizations’ values.

Sharp Antennae: If you can answer YES to 4 or more of the above statements it might be time to buy an updated copy of ‘What Color is My Parachute’ and sharpen that CV. Or take a step sideways (or backwards) and re-enter your competency zone. Maybe even try something completely new and refresh. There is no do nothing option.

Personal CEO: Whatever you decide to do, don’t just blunder off the edge of the cliff. You are the CEO of your own life. Secure the future by doing today’s job superbly well. Alternatively, get out there and create something completely new. Either as a great employee or as a self-employed wünderkid, you have both hands firmly on the steering wheel of your own career. The key is to be proactive. In the immortal words of Captain Fuerrillo of Hill Street Blues fame: “Let’s do it to them before they do it to us”. Then the only time you will ever hear the phrase ‘You’re fired’ is watching the Apprentice on TV. Sleep tight!

Paul Mooney

PS Best interview story ever. I had completed an interview (and really liked the candidate). Right at the end when we were relaxing and shooting the breeze, he mentioned: “I only ever got fired once”. The interview continued at that point…


About Tandem Consulting

Paul Mooney holds a Ph.D. and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Industrial Sociology from Trinity College, along with a National Diploma in Industrial Relations (NCI). He has a post-Graduate Diploma and a Masters in Coaching from UCD. Paul, a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, is widely recognised as an expert on organisation and individual change. He began his working life as a butcher in Dublin before moving into production management. He subsequently held a number of human resource positions in Ireland and Asia - with General Electric and Sterling Drug. Between 2007 and 2010, Paul held the position of President, National College of Ireland. Paul is currently Managing Partner of Tandem Consulting, a team of senior OD and change specialists. He has run consulting assignments in 20+ countries and is the author of 12 books. Areas of expertise include: • Organisational Development/Change & conflict resolution • Leadership Development/Executive Coaching • Human Resource Management/employee engagement
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