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What does a leader do when stuck with a poor performer?

The change of command was over and as the new commander I would soon be meeting my new staff. Truth was, I had been the operations officer, the second-in-command, and knew the staff fairly well. I also knew that I was inheriting what I was certain was the worst secretary in the US Air Force.  As the new boss, by gosh, I was going to do something about that! I was soon to learn that “doing something” was far different than what I had in mind.

I’m very goal-oriented and don’t take well to being told that something can’t be done. So imagine my reaction when the nice person in the civilian personnel office told me while it was certainly “possible” to fire an under-performing civil servant, it would take most of my energy and time to do so. This was likely going to be my only chance to be a flying squadron commander and, as she pointed out to me, eliminating one low-level civil servant probably wasn’t my highest priority. Of course it wasn’t! Time for Plan B.

Accountability is a complicated topic. Those in the leadership development field can occasionally get altruistic and take a hard line on it. I recently read an article that proposed that every entrepreneur make a New Year’s resolution to fire at least one of their lowest performers! I have to confess that when I hear a student describe continual problems with a poor performer, I often think, “Why is that person still working for you?” The answer might be that in the real world sometimes we don’t have that option. That poor performer might be in a strong union shop, the individual may be matrixed to you and not be a direct report, higher priorities may demand your time; heck, the person might be the child of the CEO! There are all kinds of realities that may cause the algebra to work out that firing just isn’t an option.

So, what to do? What’s Plan B? When I was still convinced that Linda was the worst secretary in the world and that she had to go, I was focused on what she couldn’t do well. To be fair, I had never had a secretary before so I likely had some preconceived notions of what a secretary should be able to do. Like dictation. I had never dictated a letter before in my life but she should be able to handle that in case I wanted to, right? Come to find out, perhaps I didn’t really know what an acceptably performing secretary should be able to do. I’d also fallen prey to what the psychologists call “attribution error”, ascribing the worst possible motives to others while seeing ourselves in the best possible light. As a high-performing pilot in the USAF, I was convinced that the only reason she couldn’t do something up to my fairly high standards was that she didn’t WANT to. She was CHOOSING to be a bad secretary. When I took the time to get to know her I found out Linda had an absolute heart of gold. In spite of her best efforts, there were some things she just couldn’t do well. In other words, she had an aptitude problem, not an attitude problem.

But we still had a problem. Because of her challenges in some common areas of her job, she wasn’t being fully used and still was getting below average performance evaluations. After a few months of this it finally occurred to me that if Linda was going to be a part of my professional life, for better or worse, I had to find a way to make it for the better. That’s when I finally sat down and thought about what I really wanted a secretary to do. The simple answer was, as a busy executive, I really just wanted someone to help make my life easier. So I stopped focusing on what Linda couldn’t do well, and started focusing on what she could do well. That’s when I discovered that, while Linda couldn’t take dictation or write a grammatically correct letter to save her soul, she did have an uncanny ability to keep a schedule. She could create a birthday list and make sure that a birthday card was on my desk waiting for me to write a personal note to each squadron member a day or two before their birthday, an idea I had admired in a previous boss. She also had a green thumb and really enjoyed taking care of some of the squadron beautification projects. Over time we found more and more things she could do to make life easier for me and the rest of the squadron and, surprisingly, she also started getting better at some of those other things. Perhaps being told she was a lousy secretary for so long had convinced her that she really was.

Linda and I ended our tenure together with a great working relationship. I have to confess that I’m getting choked up a little thinking back on that time. I may not have had the best secretary in the Air Force, but I certainly had the best secretary I’ve ever had. All because someone told me I couldn’t fire her.

Maybe there’s a lesson in there for us leaders.

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