Generally, companies are not particularly fond or adept at ridding themselves of underperforming executives. Rather than getting on with the unpleasantries, firms procrastinate, waffle, rationalize, or simply put their collective heads in the sand. They do so in part because the issues surrounding a ‘problem’ executive are rarely black and white. Good qualities weave in with the not-so-good and productive days alternate with the not. An executive may be functionally competent while lacking certain leadership skills that rise in importance with time. Another individual may lack key skills or struggle to scale but is an integral and positive team player. Yet another individual may be strategic, innovative and toxic. On any given day the balance of deficiencies and assets may be tolerable or not.
When companies finally do pull the plug on an executive and attention turns to a replacement it is often with a reflexive focus on avoiding similar deficiencies. Though the departing executive was invariably a complex amalgam of attributes, the positive attributes become a given while the negative ones get the attention. Unintentionally firms often end up hiring a replacement that is the opposite of the person they discarded. The results can be equally undesirable.
Consider the firm that replaces its brilliant though organizationally challenged entrepreneur with a highly process-oriented professional manager. Or the firm that replaces its persnickety CFO, dubbed internally as “Dr. No”, with a much more enabling, helpful and positive ‘business partner’. In the hurry to apply balm to the organizational wound, the bigger picture of requisite attributes is overlooked. The organized professional manager proves lacking in street savvy, vision or the instincts to adapt to the ever-changing competitive landscape. Meanwhile the nice guy CFO proves unable to ever say no and a different set of problems emerges.
Effectively replacing executives requires that companies step back and consider requisite tasks, deliverables, culture and context. In addition it requires reflection on the whole complement of attributes of the outgoing executive, not just his or her deficiencies. Unpleasant consequences await those who do not.
About the Author
Robert Hebert is the founder and Managing Partner of StoneWood Group Inc., a leading executive search firm in Canada. Since 1981, he has helped firms across a wide range of sectors address their senior recruiting, assessment and leadership development requirements.