As I’ve travelled across the US on a book tour to launch the second edition of The Leadership Contract, one question keeps coming up over and over again.
Why do we enable mediocrity in our leaders?
This is a major theme of my book, and a growing problem that is being identified by many of my clients and the people who show up to the events I speak at. And although there are many contributing factors to this phenomenon, it seems that most of the people I meet think there is one major reason why we enable and encourage mediocrity.
Afraid of having tough conversations with the people we lead about their mediocre performance, and afraid to make tough decisions when someone is just not pulling their weight.
I’ll give you a prime example. A few years ago, I was leading a strategic talent planning session with the executive team of a large organization. We were brought in because the executive team just could not agree on a strategy to keep their talent pipeline full. They just kept going around in circles, unable to hit on the right approach.
We took a different approach. We created a visual that summarized all the themes we gathered from our interviews and the assessments we had conducted with the people who reported directly to the executive team.
The visual had four categories: those identified as superstars and high potential leaders; the solid performers; the questionable leaders on the cusp, and those that were so bad at their jobs, they needed to exit the organization. Being confronted by these numbers forced some very awkward conversations.
The most interesting moment came when the executive team started talking about the weakest leaders, the people who needed to be let go. Many of the executives spoke passionately about not giving up on those individuals, pleading that they just needed more time to help bring their overall performance up. In the end, it was pretty clear that the executives were very reluctant to make some hard leadership decisions.
Through all this debate, the CEO remained silent. Then taking a red and green marker. He went to the wall where we had the large poster and proceeded to circle a number of names in green. He said to his team: “We have to do whatever we can to retain these individuals and grow them.”
Then he took the red marker and put an “X” across several names. As he did this, he said, “I don’t care what we do with these individuals. We’ve been babysitting them for too long. I’ve written them off!”
The CEO’s team was surprised by some of the individuals he marked off. When they asked for his rationale, he said, “I’ve seen enough to conclude they will never be valuable leaders in the organization.” It was almost as if at that moment, the CEO realized he had written those people off for quite some time, but had learned to tolerate and overlook their poor performance.
The CEO’s pronouncements, while appearing harsh, also exposed the fact that the entire executive team was enabling mediocrity because they weren’t prepared to act decisively in dealing with these poor performers.
The most interesting aspect of this process was that it took up most of the discussion; very little time was actually spent considering the superstars and solid performers.
Once everything was out in the open, we quickly helped the team devise an action plan to address the questionable leaders. They were all going to be given a little more time after they received the direct feedback. We then changed the focus of the conversation to their top talent, and talked about how to grow and develop them.
If this scenario sounds familiar, then you are probably working in an organization that is afraid to confront the really difficult leadership decisions that are essential for an organization to succeed.
This week’s Gut Check is a double-barrelled question: Do you struggle with really tough talent conversations? And as a result, are you allowing mediocre leadership to exist in your company? If so, it’s time to step up and be a real leader!