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Aug 30, 2016
This article is part of a series called How-Tos.

One of the most difficult tasks of a leader is to maintain a team of A players. Steve Jobs once famously said, “A players hire A players and B players hire C players.” Research has shown that A players outperform B players 2x on essential tasks and 10X on creative tasks. So why do so many leaders live with mediocre talent on their teams?

A number of excuses come to mind why leaders don’t upgrade talent on their teams. The person has the capability to do better if given more time; they have been a loyal employee for a long time; they have special skills that would be hard to duplicate; and on and on. With so much pressure on headcount and budgets, managers are often reluctant to deal with under-performers for fear that if a position remains open and unfilled for too long that they will lose the headcount. A warm body is better than nobody.

The typical approach that leaders take is to let the problem fester until it becomes too late. At that point they are forced to take action and terminate the underperformer, creating a hole with no clear succession plan. When discussing talent-management strategies with our clients, we have found the following analogy to be very helpful when trying to drive talent management behavior change.

Think about the last time you bought a new car. The scenario probably played out something like this:

My current car is seven years old, it has over 130,000 miles on it, it is no longer performing up to snuff, and it lacks the latest technology and safety features. However, it still runs and gets me around. Basically it gets the job done. So as I drive around in my underperforming ride, I pull up to a light next to a shiny new car that looks excellent. When the light changes, the car speeds off leaving me with car envy. Later that day, I go online and Google the car from the stoplight. I read through all the manufacturer’s literature, watch some videos, read customer reviews, and then I look at other comparable vehicles in the same car class. By the end of the day I have narrowed it down to a couple choices in my price range. More importantly, I am sold on the need for a new vehicle.

Over the next several days, I continue in awe at different vehicles around town and commit to visiting a couple dealers over the weekend. At the same time, my dissatisfaction with my current car grows. Every imperfection has been amplified by my research regarding a new car.

Over the weekend, I test drive a few cars and I am sold on one. The salesperson asks if I have a vehicle to trade in. Of course I do, and I will take just about anything they will offer, because I am sold on the new vehicle.

For some reason we seem to treat talent management quite differently. The typical talent management story involves figuring out what to do with the underperformer first and then researching the replacement.

If you have an underperformer on your team, the best way to upgrade the position is to identify the replacement first. We refer to this approach as forward-filling positions. Not backfilling, but forwardfilling. The difference is a proactive approach and a look at the future needs of the organization, not just a replacement for the incumbent.

With a successor identified replacing an underperformer becomes a much easier task. Think about your current team, identify your B and C players, and go talent shopping. When you find an A player, then you will be ready to upgrade the role.

For any people manager, the key is to always be recruiting. Even in the off season, the best professional sports teams are actively looking to upgrade talent by:

Conducting informational interviews: Even with no open positions or headcount approvals, managers should hold at least two informational interviews per month. Meeting candidates gives the manager a feel for available talent both inside and outside of the organization. This also lets people on the team know that the manager demands high performance from the team.

Always recruiting: Often the best employees are passive job seekers. Meeting people at conferences, networking events, and even social events can be the best way to discover top talent. The key is to always be networking and thinking about the needs of your team. Use your social media channels as a vehicle for identifying potential candidates.

A both/and approach: If you do have an underperforming employee, before you even put them on a PIP (performance improvement plan), you should begin to proactively look for their replacement. Turning around an employee’s performance is unlikely, but it can happen. Waiting to see if a person is going to make it or not before starting a search is a bad practice. The PIP and the search should be done concurrently. This puts even more pressure on the underperformer to improve their game. It also puts the manager is the position to make a much more objective decision on whether to hire someone new or to keep the existing employee.

Planning for tomorrow: Consider the future needs of the team. It might be that the incumbent is underperforming because the role has evolved and the existing person no longer has the skills and capabilities required. Forget about the existing job description. Look at what needs to be accomplished and start over.

These tips are about reframing the mindset of the people manager. The best people managers own the talent on their team, they don’t rely upon HR to make hiring and firing decisions.

This article is part of a series called How-Tos.
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