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Underperformers make a leader start to second-guess their leadership abilities

As you are scaling up your business, having an employee who is underperforming can make you start to second-guess your coaching and leadership abilities—even if you are a good manager. Candidly, it’s enough to make you go crazy. You start to have bizarre thoughts like “Am I asking too much of the employee?” In fact, your B and C Players may even use psychological warfare against you to try to make you believe you are the source of the problem.

In addition, you may even have doubts about whether there is anyone out there who can do this job. “Could anyone actually do this better?” you ask. When this happens, many leaders make the excuse of settling for the “devil they know.” This is largely because of the work involved in recruiting a new person. You may be concerned that you will not be able to find better and you may actually do worse. (Purge this negative thought—more on this later!)

B and C Players may even show flashes of promise from time to time, which gives you false hope that they may be turning the corner. You extend their stay of execution. But their temporary performance does not last and once again, you start to second-guess yourself. It is utterly maddening.

But don’t worry! You are not going insane. Help is on the way. The key is having a set of rules to use when evaluating and coaching employees. Use these 16 questions below to identify the root source of the problem. Once you have the answers to these, you will know if the performance problem can be solved with coaching or if you need to let the employee go and upgrade the talent in the position.

01. Have you adequately communicated to the person what is expected of him or her? Have they articulated that they understand in return? In other words, do they “get it”?

What is really going on? Oftentimes, there is a gap in understanding between what the leader is expecting and what the employee has really internalized and personally owns in terms of results. Make an honest assessment of whether it is on you to communicate better or for them to take ownership, accountability, and responsibility. Until they say and own the expectations and results with their own lips, it simply will not happen.

02. Do you have fundamental knowledge of how to specifically produce results in the position?

What is really going on? If you do not have firsthand knowledge about how the systems, activities, and tools in the position work, you are not being a congruent leader. Your job as the leader is to build the systems and culture that your A Players produce the results in. You cannot outsource what you do not know. Learn the basics of the role and then fill the position with an A Player. As the great Edwards Demming said, if you cannot “inspect what you expect,” you will be doomed to fail.

03. Does this employee believe in the goals and KPIs expected of them?

What is really going on? If your employee does not believe in either the importance of the goals put before them or their ability to achieve them, they are finished before they even get started. It’s your duty as a leader to make sure they are relevant and achievable goals. If you or your other team members cannot achieve them yourselves, neither will your employee be able to. This is another example of employees “seeing better than they hear” from their leaders.

04. Have you invested enough time coaching them?

What is really going on? Coaching people is all about competency and skill development. This is where your fundamental knowledge about both technical and business skills required in the role come in. Do you have the requisite skills and knowledge yourself to provide training for the job? If not, you are leaving a massive amount of money on the floor of your business. Think of the coaches you had growing up who taught you how to throw a curveball, hit a tennis forehand, play a musical scale, or hit a vocal range. Lace up your cleats or pull out your own instrument and show them how it’s done! Apply this coaching mindset to your employees and demand they practice between sessions.

05. How is their mindset? Growth versus fixed?

What is really going on? This is an example of the proven adage, “Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’ll be correct!” People with a growth mindset believe that goals can be achieved with focus and hard work. Those with a fixed mindset believe in a natural level of talent and are not willing to work to improve skills. So assess what is going on in the 6 inches between their ears. That gray matter will determine at least 50% of their success!

06. Do they have the will to do the job? It is the employee’s job to be self-motivated for excellence. (A Players are.) If not, they will never achieve excellence. Do they “want it”?

What is really going on? It’s the employee’s responsibility to be self-motivated. As I like to remind employees and managers alike—they knew the terms of the job when they signed up! A Players work for excellence. For them, money is just a natural and useful by-product of their efforts. Does your employee really want the position, or do they just like the salary? There is a huge difference!

07. Do they have the skill to do the job? Abilities and knowledge. Intellectual capacity. Capacity to do it.

What is really going on? Let’s face it: Some people are just smarter and harder working than others. This is called resourcefulness. Resourceful people are lucky because they make their own luck. Skills are actually one of the quickest things to improve with any employee. For example, learning a new skill in a software or even softer skills like communications can be improved within a few days or weeks. Ask yourself: what is the condition of your department’s playbooks? With documented systems and processes in playbooks, you can get a SYP (Smart Young Person) up and running in a matter of weeks. If someone is just not smart, or is playing dumb with you, it’s time to move on!

08. Have you seen any improvement? Have they done what they said they were going to do? In their lead measure activities? In their lag measure results?

What is really going on? As the great business philosopher Jim Rohn said, “What the world expects from us is we make measurable progress in meaningful time.” That said, have you seen progress and improvement from the last time you coached your person? Most importantly, are they doing the lead measures and activities needed to produce the lag measures you need? I’ll take progress and hard work directed on the right strategies and tactics any time. What you should not accept are excuses and lack of activities. If so, cut bait!

09. Has this employee performed at a high level in the past?

What is really going on?If the employee has performed at a high level in the past, then it’s your job as the leader to figure out what is going on. Is there something with their health or personal life that is going on? Are they distracted by a side gig? Is the issue your lack of leadership? Have you loaded too much on them or given them too much “churn” in your direction? That said, if you cannot find any evidence that they have ever performed at an A Player level, then it is time to cut them loose and allow them to explore free-agency.

10. Is this employee actively studying, learning, training, and practicing his or her craft? (This includes currently reading the top books in his or her field and studying your department-level playbook.)

What is really going on? “Leaders are readers and learners are earners.” Someone’s past education is vastly overrated. You only want employees who are actively learning by reading the development-oriented books in the canon of your corporate university. People with a growth mindset crave learning and understand that getting better comes through effort, practice and application in the real world. Employees who are unwilling to learn on their own time do not belong in a Scaling Up business.

11. Are they coachable?

What is really going on? Coachability is all about seeking and implementing feedback to improve any skill or behavior. First, a coachable employee will solicit feedback by asking questions like, “What feedback do you have for me?” “How am I doing?” and “How can I improve?” Second, and perhaps even more important, is implementing the hard and sometimes unorthodox changes necessary for improvement. Anyone who has reworked their presentation skills, golf swing, or tennis serve can relate to how hard it is to master new techniques—that at first feel unnatural to facilitate a breakthrough. It’s easy for an employee to say they are coachable, but the proof is in their actions.

12. Do you believe this person will achieve productivity within a reasonable amount of time?

What is really going on? Here’s the deal—what has changed to give you faith that their performance will finally change for the better? If you have started coaching them and holding them accountable to their commitment, training, preparation, practice, and activity levels, then you have a fighting chance that they will become successful. The key here is to immediately look for immediate progress and improvement.

13. Has the employee articulated they are committed to do whatever is necessary to become successful, or have they set conditional boundaries?

What is really going on? Too often, all of us set arbitrary conditional boundaries that inflict self-imposed limitations on our success. I once knew of a CEO who instead of holding his leadership team accountable for year-end results would fly away to faraway lands to work on less important parts of his business (otherwise known as avoidance behavior). Or the salesperson who refuses to make outbound calls to ensure their sales success.

Here is a simple and powerful test of commitment that you can apply to yourself or anyone: After the event is over, do you have regrets about actions you should have taken to ensure your success, but didn’t? If the answer to that is yes, then you were not fully committed. So that begs the question: How committed is your employee to hitting their goals? Are they unconditionally committed? Are they making the necessary sacrifices? This is usually what it takes to be successful.

14. Is the employee bought into your company’s core purpose and core values? Do they actively live them?

What is really going on? The word “core” is derived from the Latin corpus meaning body and cor meaning heart. As such, your company’s core purpose defines how your work matters to the world and should serve as your company’s guiding star. Similarly, your firm’s core values are a small set of guiding principles and rules that form your culture and operating system. Simply put, an employee not buying into either and not living them out would be a reason to cease a relationship. People who are either already A Players or who want to develop into A Players buy into your core purpose and values. It’s probably what attracted them to your business in the first place. Those who are not aligned with your core purpose and values are simply working for a paycheck and will never be engaged.

15. Are they blaming you for their failures?

What is really going on? The only skill that B and C Players are really good at is blaming others. You will find that they are professional victims. Of course listen to reasonable feedback that shows you where you may be the bottleneck and are making them “stuck.” However, if their peers are achieving the desired results and/or if you are certain that you can yourself achieve the results, then it is time to stop listening to this psycho-babble and move on. Otherwise, you’ll start going crazy and second-guessing yourself.

16. Do you care more than they do? Are you putting more energy into them than they are putting into themselves?

What is really going on? If you care more about the employee’s success than they do, there is really not much you can do about it. (Same applies to parenting your children). The key is to ask why a goal is important to the employee. What is the implication or impact to them? A quick test is to ask yourself if you are putting more energy into the employee than they are giving back. If you are not getting back roughly what you are putting in, then something is wrong and it is likely time to move on.

This list of 16 principles has proven to be very effective in pinpointing whether your performance issue can be solved through coaching or if you have a more unchangeable issue going on with your employee. When you encounter an underperforming employee you need, to realize that there is undoubtedly a better person out there to do the job. Tools and processes like using a good internal or external recruiter and validating performance with Topgrading will ensure you find those A Players, even in a tight job market.

If you want to learn more about honing your own coaching and talent management skills to improve performance within your organization, schedule a coaching session with me. I’d be happy to talk with you about the goals you have for your business and how we can work together to build strategies to achieve them.

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