Introducing the Leadership Development Roundtable Challenge!

Posted 06.15.2011

My always innovative blogging buddy, Dan McCarthy of Great Leadership, has assembled a group of leadership bloggers (including yours truly) to participate in a monthly Leadership Development Roundtable Challenge.  Welcome to the first edition of the Challenge. 

Each month, a core member of The Roundtable will introduce a leadership challenge and a solicit a 200 word maximum answer from the other core members plus one special guest. Readers can then contribute their own answers and/or vote for their favorite.

Here are your Roundtable hosts:

Here’s this month’s challenge:

Rob was recently brought in to take over as the new General Manager of Operations for a large, established, mid-size (4 billion in revenue) company. The unit has been under performing, and the Vice-President (his manager) thought it was time for a change. The incumbent “left to pursue other opportunities and spend more time with family” and it was determined there were no viable internal replacements (although a couple members of Rob’s team thought they should have been considered).

Rob has a stellar track record, impressive credentials, and appears to be the right person to drive change and get results. Rob’s manager loves his passion and aggressiveness.

After 30 days on the job, Rob has interviewed each of his direct report managers and reviewed their performance data, and has determined before he can do anything, he needs to get “the right people on the bus”, and do it ASAP. He feels that while two of the managers may someday be able to grow into the role and meet his expectations, the other four don’t stand a chance. It’s not that they are bad managers – in fact, all have over 10 years’ service with no significant performance issues. However, Rob feels none of them have had the necessary experience or skills needed to take the business where it needs to go, and he doesn’t have the luxury (or time) to get them there. After all, according to Rob “Jack Welch said one of his biggest mistakes as a leader was not moving fast enough”.

He’s gone to HR to explore removal options, and he’s running into resistance. HR says because there is no previous documentation of any performance problems, each of the managers must be put on six month action plans, with measurable improvement milestones, and given access to training and coaching. While his boss (the VP) supports Rob, his bosses boss is concerned Rob is being too aggressive. “That’s just not the way we do things around here”, he said.

Rob is frustrated. He thought he had a mandate to drive change and turn a poorly performing operation around. Now he’s not so sure, and doesn’t know what to do next.

What would you do if you were Rob? What, if anything did he do wrong? What advice would you give Rob, or any manager in a similar situation? Is there a “rule of thumb” regarding how long a manager should wait to make changes when taking over a new team?

Here’s the advice from “the experts”:

From Dan McCarthy (written before I read the other answers):

Rob may have misread the organization’s culture and tried to push too hard too soon. It also sounds like his boss’s boss and HR are not on board with his plans.  Here’s what I would recommend to Rob:

1. Talk to your boss about getting his/her boss on board with your plans, as well as HR. Perhaps the four of you can sit down with a performance and potential matrix and come up with a consensus assessment of your management team and action plans.

2. For the managers who are seen as having long-term potential, make sure they know where they stand. Get them involved in creating and implementing your vision and creating robust individual development plans.
3. For the other managers, have a respectful yet honest discussion with them about where they stand and work with them develop action plans and provide them the support they deserve. Give them 6 months to meet your expectations or find new roles – they’ve earned that.

4. Begin to recruit the talent you need and bring them in at a higher level. Make sure you hire managers who can coach and are willing to develop your managers who end up staying.

From Art Petty:

I’ve been “New Guy Rob” before, and I appreciate the dilemma. The burning issue of solving the “underperforming” problem is running head-on into the organization’s discomfort with rapid change.

For future reference, Rob must recognize that he erred on the front-end of the transaction by not gaining a clear understanding of the mandate and support for change from his new bosses. Having said that, my recommendation is for Rob to focus his energies on strategy and execution and spend a bit more time (90 days to six months) objectively assessing the talent he inherited. He might just be surprised.

The “rush to replace” is almost instinctive for new leaders and often wrong. Rob does not have a clear view to the capabilities of each of the managers, and is better served focusing on resetting strategy, execution and operations, and assessing talent as he goes. Some managers thrive with new challenges and others show their weaknesses or lack of commitment. Additionally, strategy must drive talent needs…not Rob’s gut-level assessment of people.

Bottom-line: focus on the business Rob. Assess talent under fire, involve your bosses and HR in the strategy work and on-going talent assessment, and then make fast, fair, informed decisions.

From Mary Jo Asmus:

Rob appears to have assumed that his mandate and timeline for organizational change was more urgent to him than to his senior management; he should clarify the timeline. He should also look at himself for the answers to this dilemma.

Two key words that describe Rob in this scenario caught my attention: “passion” and “aggressiveness”. Both traits when over used can show up in behaviors like impatience and forcefulness, a deadly combination that can derail a leader. I fear Rob may exhibit these traits.

Rob has rendered an opinion of his employees on his own, without significant documented performance issues. If they are managed and coached well (by Rob) he might find that they are the right people for the bus. He’ll need to exercise some patience in his expectations.
I would advise Rob to be open about his employees’ potential and hire a coach for himself to assist him in tempering his aggressiveness and find new ways to lead these employees. He might be surprised at what they are capable of.  If any of them don’t measure up, he should work with HR on the performance issues.

From Steve Roesler:

At least two things are going on organizationally:

1. HR is being diligent, not resistant. No prior documentation invites legal action.

2. The boss’s boss: “We don’t do that.” Rob is learning something about the culture and, perhaps, why things were the way they were in the first place.

I’d roll with the 6-month plan and be clear about the consequences of no change in performance. I’d also be touching base with potential candidates during that time.

I don’t see anything blatantly wrong. Given the task, Rob might have asked the VP (during his interview) if there was strong support from the big boss,

I’d advise others to be clear in advance about what’s possible, what’s not, and how each will impact the ability to make rapid changes. Rob now needs an agreed-upon Plan B for what will happen after six months and what kinds of results to expect in the meantime.

Rob took time to meet with the direct reports as well as review performance data. That’s a solid rule of thumb. The corporate “rule of thumb,” however, trumped Rob’s. This highlights how important it is to dig deeply before signing on to spearhead a “quick change.”

From Jennifer Miller:

It’s a good start: you’ve quickly assessed your operation; now you have a road-map for your journey.   Unfortunately, you want to use a Ferrari to arrive at your destination and it appears that key players in your firm would rather you use a skateboard.
You may have a mandate to shake things up, but right now, not everyone is “on the bus” with this idea. You’ve joined an organization with several layers of structure, not an entrepreneurial start-up, so be patient. I’ve seen many ambitious newly-hired leaders whose plans went down in flames because they were too focused on achieving results now. It’s not enough to have a solid plan; you need allies who will support the plan.

My advice:
Get clear about who holds the power in your organization. It may be true that your boss is supportive, but what kind of sway does his boss hold? If he’s resistant, you’ve got to show him how your plan benefits the company. Also— don’t underestimate HR’s unique type of power. They are the gatekeepers of company policy. Circumvent them, and they’ll make your life miserable.

Bottom line: Don’t abandon your plan. Rather, consider adjusting your timeline.

From Scott Eblin:

Rob appears to be a victim of a growing epidemic among corporate leaders.  They’re so busy doing that they can’t see what really needs to be done.   Instead of spending his first month figuring out who to fire, Rob needed to be casting his net more broadly to learn what other key stakeholders expect of his organization.  Rob is not the only person who gets to define what success looks like for his organization.  He needs to pay attention to what others think and then build a plan from there.
Once he has a clear picture of where he needs to go, he needs to then come up with a longer range plan for matching the talent of his team to the results needed in the future.  That’s likely going to mean sequencing the changes.  Is he really going to be able to find four ready now replacements at the same time?  Unlikely.  Would he be better off to key in on critical, immediate priorities for raising the quality of his team?  Likely.  And while he’s at it, he needs to get close to the head of HR.  He’s going to need support there.

From John Baldoni:

Move and move quickly, yes indeed!

Unfortunately Rob is on an island by himself and if he moves he will be in the water surrounded by sharks.

The underlying issue is not Rob; it’s his boss. Rob does not have the support he needs to effect change and for that reason he has two options: one, live with the status quo; or two, leave.

Rob could seek to bring in a one or two new executives to show the current team what it needs to do. Sometimes new blood can have a transformative effect on the organization. But would not bank on a miracle.

Rob’s credibility is at stake. He cannot effect the change he needs to effect without the support of his boss. That is not forthcoming so I would advise that Rob take his talents elsewhere.

Note: Jack Welch was an insider; he knew what levers to pull at GE. Rob has no such influence. He is a round peg trying to fit into a square hole.

OK, so you’ve heard from the Roundtable “experts”. Now, here’s your chance to cast your vote and pick your favorite answer:

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