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Managing Principals by Julia Kramer Take the Lead

The most difficult task of leadership is dealing with staff issues. In a “lead, follow or get out of the way” culture, it’s everyone’s job to work together—or get out of the way.

By  Julia Kramer

Some people are natural born leaders and some develop strong leadership skills during their career. Both groups have characteristics in common and run up against many of the same challenges—challenges inherent in dealing with economic and regulatory issues, client needs and expectations, and internal issues such as staff motivation and development.

Of these challenges, many leaders feel least competent when dealing with staff issues. This may be because, despite their best intentions and efforts, some employees continue to be unmotivated, unsupportive or suspicious of their leaders. These employees do little to further a leader’s cause and may, in fact, be roadblocks to success. Identifying, resolving and/or eliminating staff that are not fully on board is far more practical and appropriate than dragging these employees along. General George S. Patton could obviously relate to this dilemma. As he put it: “Lead me, follow me, or get out of my way.”

Before pushing them out of the way:

Make your expectations clear from the top down. Meet with your executive staff first. Let them know that constructive disagreement and expert advice is expected and valued during decision making, but that once a decision is made, it is expected that they will support, and publicly show support for, the decision. Nothing degrades leadership more quickly than a top executive reluctantly toeing the line, all the while communicating to his staff and others that, although he’s doing what is expected of him, he is in total disagreement. Don’t let your top staff make a scapegoat out of you. Encourage them to work within the system to make changes, but to do so without being an adversary. And make sure they are willing to understand and consistently enforce established policy. If they are not, you have a nasty trifecta on your hands in terms of morale, bench strength and legal liability.

Have your executive team communicate this message as its own throughout the organization. They know best who on their staff is committed and who is not. They should send the message to their group as a whole and then meet individually with those who need the most positive change. Have them explain that consistent negativity and lack of enthusiasm and/or productivity is harmful to others and counter to the firm’s goals. Just as you reminded your top team, ensure that they remind their staff that there are options to consider, but that remaining publicly pessimistic and/or apathetic is not one of them.

Carefully evaluate the staff and determine who makes the cut. There may be some unhappy, yet valuable, employees who can be salvaged given some time and attention, and some basic coaching and guidance. Maybe they are misinformed or uninformed—easy things to fix. However, in every organization there are employees who do a minimum of work and a maximum of complaining, gossiping or rabble rousing. These employees need to go, typically without much lead time. If one of these employees, with termination hanging over her head, decides that your firm really is where she wants to work and is eager to make the necessary short- and long-term changes—in terms of both behavior and attitude—then you have another decision to make. It would take a lot of convincing for me to continue to invest in a formerly problematic employee who is changing only to avoid being cut from the ranks.

Finally, make the necessary changes. If there are employees, whether top executives or entry-level staff, who are dissatisfied with their job, the firm’s direction and/or its leadership, and there is no hope of redemption or no interest in redeeming them, then an alternative to outright termination is to counsel them out. Help them realize that job satisfaction is not possible if they stay put. Support and encourage them to look for a job elsewhere. Let them resign rather than be terminated—it will help them in their job search. This work is mutually beneficial.

If they do not want to resign (yes, some folks would rather be terminated), then do the deed and post the job internally or start external recruitment right away. There are many job seekers out there, even as the market tightens up; ones who will value and honor the firm, its leadership and their job.

Take the lead and shore up your staff, from the executives to the interns, by continuing to invest in those that drive the business forward and discontinuing wasting resources on those that do not. This logical approach to staff selection puts staff decisions in the same arena as other business decisions. Once staff understand that “lead, follow, or get out of the way” just means “it’s everyone’s job to work together to get where we need to go,” you’ll have fewer barriers on the road to victory and a more deserving group to celebrate with once you’re there.


Kramer, an HR consultant, is a contributing writer.
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Got a human resources problem you can?t resolve? Ask our HR guru Julia Kramer, SPHR, how to handle those sticky personnel issues everyone wants to avoid.