What to Do With Incompetent Leaders

When the Bloom Is Off the Rose You Must Take Action.

Over the course of a 30-plus year consulting career there are certain things that have proven constant, when it comes to leaders in organization. One of those constants is that when we bring someone new into the organization there is a 90-day period where they can do no wrong. There seems to be a halo over that new person that causes us to overlook mistakes and excuse early shortcomings. That constant applies to individual contributors as well as leaders.

There are a lot of reasons we are so forgiving in the early days of having a new leader on board. We attribute the new person’s mistakes to the learning curve of a new system, lack of our time to coach them, new and unfamiliar personalities, etc. Even though we are forgiving early on, there seems to be an unwritten expectation that somewhere around the 90-day mark, the new leader will start performing well and mistakes will be at a minimum.

When you, as the boss, start to realize that the 90-day honeymoon period is about over and the improvement you expected is not happening, you need to act. There is no value in looking back and regretting that you did not pay more attention earlier. Hindsight is always 20/20. Do your best to look at today, assess the situation, and put an improvement plan together.

When you realize that what you saw in the interview that gave you confidence this person would be a good leader is not panning out, here are some things to consider.

Do a self-assessment. Before you talk to the person or take any action, you must first ask yourself if you, as this person’s boss, have done everything you could to make them successful. If the answer is yes, you should start putting a plan together to move the person somewhere else that is a better fit, or in the worst case, cut the person loose. If the answer is no, you have not done everything you could have, you should come up with a training and coaching plan that actively involves both you and the employee.

Talk to the person. Now that you have some ideas on how to make the situation better, set aside a good amount of time to talk to the person face-to-face. This is not a time to relegate this discussion to email or texting. Career discussions are very important and need to be in person. Let the person know what your perceptions are and what your plan going forward is. Show that you are open to making adjustments in those plans based on this discussion.

If you choose to move the person. Do not move a problem employee to another department or under another boss. Sometimes, people belong in a different seat on the bus. If you honestly feel that the employee can improve as an individual contributor, working in a different environment, or reporting to someone else, make the move.

If you choose to coach the person. Making this decision means that you believe that you can get this person back on track to successful performance with goal setting, feedback, coaching, accountability, and follow up. Before you go down this path, ask yourself if you are willing to invest the time necessary. If you do not believe the return will be worth the investment, move in a different direction.

Start the improvement plan. When you start to set goals with your employee that is struggling, focus on setting goals around true leadership skills, not technical skills. Remember, if you have decided to retain this leader who seems incompetent at this time, it is going to take a big investment of your time and energy. If you are OK with that, then be very specific with the behaviors you need to see changed and a timeline for that change. The first metric of success is buy-in on the part of the employee. If they do not buy-in and are just doing this because you told them to, success will only be partial.

Monitor. With clear goals, specific behaviors that need to change, and a timeline, you are set to go. At this point, you need to set up a frequent and consistent schedule or feedback and face-to-face coaching. Check in with the employee’s subordinates now and then to see if they noticed a difference.

When you are faced with the reality of an incompetent leader reporting to you, what you do about it is a business choice. If you see value in this person and are willing to invest time and energy, incompetence can become success.

Steve Schumacher is a management consultant, trainer and public speaker with more than 25 years of experience in numerous industries throughout North America, including aggregates operations. He can be reached at [email protected].

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