The Thorn in My Side

Hi, Tom.

We work hard to hire and promote the right people.

Unfortunately, I hired a senior leader that is not working out. At first, she seemed like a great fit. She said the right things, and everyone felt good about adding her. Her projects since then have been completed successfully and led to increased business. That’s all good.

The issue now is that she has alienated her peers with her abrasive behavior. She tends to chase the credit for every success and is less responsive to customers than before. Those things are entirely contrary to our culture.

I have tried coaching her, but it is not working. Now I find out through the grapevine that she is infecting others in the company with her attitudes. I feel like she has hijacked what used to be a healthy culture.

We need her contributions but at what cost? What can I do?


Thorn in My Side

Insights for Leaders

Dear Thorn,

You have described a challenging situation. From your tone, I can sense the conflict that you feel. On the one hand, it isn’t easy to find and integrate productive senior leaders. When you have someone like that, there is a strong impulse to keep them. On the other hand, everyone you hire impacts the others in your organization. We hope, of course, that the impact is positive and additive. But, as you have found out, that is not always true.

It seems that you value your culture. My guess is that you likely put intentional effort into defining and communicating your culture to job applicants, including the senior leader that you hired. Commonly, we encourage business leaders to answer five questions in their definitions.

1. What do you do?

2. Why do you do it?

3. Where are you going?

4. What do you hope to become?

5. What behaviors are nonnegotiable for all employees?

(The answers to questions 1 and 2 lead to your mission statement. The answers to questions 3 and 4 form your vision. Meanwhile, the answer to question 5 is your core values. The five answers form your company identity.)

You have great alignment when everyone in your company knows the same answers and lives according to them. Studies show that this typically enables exceptional engagement and growth. However, you are experiencing the opposite – misalignment. Your senior leader is, intentionally or not, redefining the company identity. That might be easy to eliminate, except that she is increasing your business. What if you tried to address the issues more directly, and she decided to leave? Is it worth making a stand, or is it better to accommodate a few shortcomings?

It’s time to break out a blank T chart. Take a sheet of paper and draw a large, capital T. The heading for the left side of the T is “Benefits.” The title on the right side is “Costs.”

List the benefits of keeping your senior leader on the left side of the T. You will probably include things like the successful project completions, the increased business from her efforts, and perhaps the sunk costs (e.g., it was not easy finding her in the first place, the effort to train her was significant).

On the right side, list the costs of retaining her. This typically is where things get illuminating. From your description, one cost is the change in the company atmosphere because of her abusive behavior. It is fair to note the risks entailed by permitting this behavior to persist unchecked. Your comments imply that she treats customers in a way inconsistent with your core values. More broadly, your “hijacked culture” comment suggests she leads others away from what you have intentionally established. Ouch. What are the costs of alienating her work peers, unapologetic behavior at odds with your standards, and leadership leading to decreased unity in your company?

I have painted a simple picture for you. You undoubtedly have more information. Just remember to count the costs accurately and completely. And, if that count suggests that she is no longer a fit for you, move quickly. I have often seen surges in employee productivity and engagement when the thorn is removed. Your other employees are watching what you will do and will reward your courage. Good luck.

Let me know how it goes.

Tom Hawes

Principal Chair, C12 North Texas

[email protected]

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