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Let the undead leave with Dignity

Over the last 30 years I have had the chance to work in and lead some fantastic teams of people. Over the last 15 years I have had the chance to walk alongside the leaders of some very successful and exciting companies. One of the recurring issues which crops up in growth companies is how do we deal with the accountant who can’t keep up with the size of the role we want him/her to play in the company so that we can move forward with confidence to the next stage of the company growth. This conversation is not just about accountants its also about Marketing Directors, Operational staff, salespeople, logistics seniors and HR managers. Maybe this conversation is about you?

As the company grows the burden placed on the shoulders of the senior team and middle management grows too. Sometimes that growth in expectations can be slow and gradual, so that the individual sleep walks into incompetence. Sometimes the growth in a particular area of the company can be explosive and almost overnight a member of the senior team is exposed as incapable. Many CEO’s and leaders do not like confrontation and so dealing with the struggling member of the senior team can get pushed onto the back burner. Maybe they can buck their ideas up, maybe they can shake themselves out of it, maybe they will see the writing on the wall and apply for other jobs and we can recruit a bigger “IT” director etc. Even worse, we can send them on a course. Even worse than sending them on a course is to leave them in role, slowing dying in front of everyone. Perhaps the only support they have available is in the bottle they hold each night whilst fretting about the days challenges. The undead are known and avoided by everybody. Some of the exec will tease each other about what they will do their undead person.

It is the undead people we have in the leadership team that hold us back more than anything. They are ignored, spoken about behind people’s back, excluded from influencing the future agenda and cut out from important internal senior communications. They stay in the organisation, often coming in early and staying late. They rarely take all their holidays and enjoy little of the company success. Their ghost like presence makes the winners in the company feel queasy. They don’t expect much and can deteriorate into apologising for their own existence.

It is at this point that I have often been asked to help the CEO deal with the undead members of middle and senior management. Sometimes an undead member of the senior team can be saved, sometimes a new role can be developed for them which plays to their talents. Sometimes splitting their role can help. Training and coaching can improve many leaders and help them grow into the new expectations which are being placed upon them. But what about those who can’t respond to development and coaching. What about those who have been left undead in the senior team for so long they don”t respond to the resuscitation techniques in my kit bag? Well thats another tough one for the CEO. Many times I have heard the CEO comment that;

“She was the director who took us into Asia”

“He kept the business going when the banks walked away from us”

“He has a network in our sector like no one else”

“She is the most loyal person I know”

“He is great but its as though he has just given up”

“She recruited me 15 years ago. I owe her”

The problem is that the undead die slowly, in front of people who are driving the company onto the next stage of growth.

One of the ways I have helped CEO’s tackle this issue is to take the burden of failure away from the situation. I ask them to imagine the company is like a large intercity express train. The train is going from station A all the way through to station Z. Stopping at each station along the way. I help them visualise different members of the team getting on the company train at different stations. And then explore how unlikely it is that the book keeper who boards the train in station A will have the relevant skills to become the Finance Controller we need by the time the company train pulls into station H, nor will this person have the capacity we need when the company floats on the London Markets at station R. This does not make the book keeper a bad person, nor does it mean we need to throw him/her off the train as we pull into station H. It does however, mean that we have to accept that during the life of this company train, senior members will be getting on and off all the time. So recruiting an IT manager in station E should be done in the context of possibly having to wave him/her goodbye and welcome a new IT Director at station P.

Once the CEO can grasp this concept it really helps the CEO to see that they will be welcoming new leaders onto the train all the time. And they will be saying good bye and thank you to others who have been critical in enabling the company to grow from station D to L before they leave to take up a new role in a new organisation. It is kinder and right to thank all members of the senior team as they get off the train for their contribution and energy. Saving these team members from becoming undead in our workforce is a win win win. We are thanking them for their contribution and releasing people to grow in their next role. Also it is important to remember that the Finance Controller who joins at station H, albeit brilliant, would not have been prepared to join your business when it was at station A and trading was minimal.

Can you hear the voice of strategic leaders in your company, can you see their vision, do you watch each day as they inspire all staff, have they the networks you need to take advantage of the current economy, have they the tenacity, stretch and vigor to grow your business and keep pace. If the answer is yes, hooray. If you look at your team and see damp, grey, muted managers straining to keep their finger nails on the back bumper of the last carriage of your train, please pause and do the right thing.

The most poignant moment is when the CEO reflects about which station they should be looking to alight from and make space for others to drive the company forward. Look around your middle and senior managers, are any of them struggling to cope with being undead at work, in your team? Call me direct and let's have a look at the team and help some leave and get ready to invite some new people to come aboard and be part of helping your growth and achieve your goals in the future.We are facing a moment of incredible opportunity, new markets, technology offloading innovation after innovation, so make sure you have the right team, on the right train, strapped in. Because the next few years are going to be exciting.

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