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What to Do When a Rising Star Falls

When a top performer fails, do you remove them from the company or give them a second chance? Columnist Kevin D. Wilde explores.

July 19, 2012
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Imagine me, moving through the hallway to a meeting I don’t want to attend but where something has to be done.

Jon had been a top performer and a promising promotion just 12 months ago. Unfortunately, the rising star had fallen. Staying in the role was no longer an option, and there was only one question left: removal from the company or a second chance?

By its very nature, talent management planning is mostly about the positives: designating strategic roles, attracting and nurturing talent with potential, providing great development and plotting the next moves to maximize growth and impact. It’s the fun part of the job, and Jon had been a stellar product of this work, until now.

I had a few minutes to gather my thoughts before entering the room where Jon’s business and function boss would meet to debate the second chance option. In preparation for the meeting, I formulated a five-point checklist to guide the conversation and reach the right decision for all concerned.

Did Jon cross the integrity line? If yes, then no second chance. Fortunately in Jon’s case, ethics and values were never in doubt. The problem stemmed from other issues.

One trap here is if the performance track record has been superior, there is a temptation to issue a temporary pass on organization values and ethics. The best organizations make the so-called tough call to dismiss the high-performing, low-value leader. We all wish more would do so.

Does Jon have the skills to win? The current role could be such a mismatch for Jon that odds of growing the necessary skills for success are quite low. In that case, more time in the role or development interventions are wasted time and energy.

The issue then becomes whether Jon has valuable skills — differential competencies — that the organization needs. If so, then the discussion should focus on other valuable positions where he could succeed.

The trap is to replant someone with a performance issue into a holding role that doesn’t really do any good for the organization or the performer’s self-esteem.

Does Jon still have the sponsorship to succeed? Even with a good second-chance role, Jon may not make it without continuing sponsorship. Some cultures and leaders are more forgiving of a misstep than others.

As I think about the conversation with Jon’s manager, I want to test the confidence and commitment. Are we committed to bringing the best out of Jon in the new role?

If there is hesitation, my experience is that we are delaying a bad situation and possibly making matters worse down the road as Jon tries to rebound without the necessary support from above. The same holds true for peers and other stakeholders.

Does Jon have the resiliency to recover? Being removed from a job after 12 months is hard on the ego, especially for a high-flyer who has done well in previous roles. Even with the right amount of support, I’ve seen second-chancers never fully recover. They lose their ambition and the innovation and boldness necessary to win. Jon will need to be resilient, learn the lessons of failure and use the experience to build new levels of self-insight and determination.

Are we all better off with a fresh start? The final question is about balancing interests. First, in fairness to the company, do we have a good backfill for Jon right now and other promising candidates to fill roles which would be Jon’s second-chance job?

A weak pipeline needs to be one of the considerations for next moves. Second, would a fresh start at a new company, a new setting, be better in the long run for Jon? This question feels a bit more caring but is also difficult to ask.

This type of discussion is never easy, and even with these five questions to guide it, emotions will be high when deciding Jon’s options. Talent management is about doing our best when things turn out well and also when they don’t.

Kevin D. Wilde is the vice president and chief learning officer at General Mills and author of Dancing with the Talent Stars. He can be reached at editor@talentmgt.com.

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