I recently spoke with “Mike”, a former client who was in transition after recently losing his sales manager position with a Global IT consultancy. Historically, he had always been a capable manager whose team delivered on expectations. When I asked what happened, he described having a new boss who restructured the business and set aggressive sales goals. Under the helm of the new executive, the business model moved from transactional selling to a stronger focus on consultation. Mike struggled to meet his numbers in the first two quarters, in part, because he had not been provided with much guidance or training on how to succeed.  While his manager tried to “help,” Mike continued to fall short. Before his new manager’s one year anniversary, Mike was let go.

In retrospect, Mike had not been set up for success.  His performance targets were loose and lacked specificity. He had not been provided with training on how to adapt to the new business model.  And most importantly, he was provided with little feedback on how to improve.  While some of this can be attributed to what Mike did or did not do, in reality, the lack of structure and guidance created a downward spiral that ended in his job loss.

In today’s economic climate, it is surprising how many organizations and managers fail to effectively address performance problems or apply comprehensive remedies to get performance back on track.  This issue is brought sharply into focus during times of slow growth and fierce competition, as organizations cannot afford to have ineffective performance management systems. This leads to lost productivity and de-motivates stronger performers who believe leadership is not serious about performance. The longer the issue persists, the more the devastating the consequences.

To ensure optimal performance, executives need to be prepared to quickly deal with performance problems as they arise.  While approaches can vary based on the size of an organization and job complexity, the following steps represent some bedrock actions organizations should take:

  • Be clear on the priorities for success: In situations where performance is falling below standard, expectations need to advance beyond a set of abstract goals or competencies. Clear priorities (e.g., two to three targets) need to be established and agreed upon by the executive and underperforming manager. It is paramount that the yardstick by which performance is measured is clearly defined.
  • Be clear on the root cause and challenge personal assumptions:  When attributing causes for behavior, we all run the risk of making erroneous assumptions.  Is the issue a person’s work ethic, or are there issues outside the work environment that may be impacting them in a negative way?
  • Create a clear plan (in writing) to address issues: This action plan should include a list of target areas for improvement, actions to be taken to close gaps and improve performance, support needed (for both the executive and underperforming manager), and a clear timeline to reassess performance and ultimately make a decision.
  • Provide resources to facilitate skill building: Consider using an outside coach, internal mentor or external training resources to provide additional support.  The more structure you bring to this process (e.g., linking developmental resources to performance goals), the better.
  • Meet frequently to track performance improvement and provide regular feedback.

Applying a structured solution to facilitate performance improvement gives an employee a fair opportunity to improve while also sending a clear message to the rest of organization that performance matters. In a recent NY Times article (May 12, 2013), Brooke Denihan Barret, CEO of Denihan Hospitality Group succinctly stated, “Sometimes organizations fall down when they don’t ask: How do you give people the tools they need to be successful? How do you get that person to understand what change needs to happen, and how do you help them along the way? Because people can’t always figure it out on their own, and nor should you expect them.”