It happened many years ago, but I still remember it as though it was yesterday. I was sitting with my manager on a Friday morning doing a review.
I was fortunate to manage one of the hottest groups of sales people in the hottest market space in the company. My team of about 60 people was on track to blow our numbers away–again. We would produce $300-400 Million in revenue, lock in our position as global share leader in the solution space.
I thought we were flying, and the meeting would be like our usual Friday meetings, exploring how we might do more, perhaps tweak something here or there. Usually, very collaborative and good meetings.
This particular morning, my manager reviewed the results of the latest employee opinion survey. It was a key tool for measuring how effective we were as managers. Every year, everyone in the organization was surveyed. There were questions about their satisfaction with the company, all the normal things. There were, also, questions about their satisfaction with the job being done by their direct manager, their manager’s manager, and executive management.
The results were a critical part of our own performance reviews.
In the past, I had always had outstanding results. As a first line manager, my people respected me, appreciated how I worked with them, coached them and so forth. The survey results always reflected the respect they had for me.
My first year as a second line manager–only a few months into the job, I got good scores and results.
I expected nothing different this year, particularly since, as a team, we were being so successful.
My manager started reviewing the results. I was stunned! They were horrible.
The sales people had some OK things to say, but some interesting and very negative things on a couple of specific issues. The management team that reported to me had some similar things to say. My peers also had similar things to say.
All the negative news focused on a single issue. I had a problem in the organization–it had persisted for a little more than a year and I hadn’t stepped up to address it.
It was the performance of a particular manager in my business unit. He was doing terribly, and the perception of everyone–his people and everyone else, is that I wasn’t doing my job in addressing his performance issues.
Let me call this manager “Ron.” Soon after I had been promoted from a first line manager to a second line manager, I had hired Ron to fill my old job. He had been a manager in another part of the organization. Seemed to have a good reputation. He had been my boss’s boss (president of the division) assistant for a year and had done a good job. So I hired him to backfill me.
Pretty soon, it became clear to me that Ron was struggling. I spent lots of time coaching him, talking to him about each of the people in his team, the critical things that needed to be done to continue to drive performance. I felt pretty confident, because I had build the team and they were rock stars. So I thought with a little coaching and a good team he could make it. Over the weeks, and couple of months, it became clear he just wasn’t getting it. There was no improvement. He was trying hard, but for some reason he just couldn’t put it all together.
I started getting frustrated with him. I was spending a lot of time, not getting results. So I decided to start managing around him. Since I had put together the team, I would reach out, talk to them, coach them and did the things Ron should have been doing, but wasn’t. I’d give Ron assignments to keep him busy and “out of trouble.”
I thought I was “managing” or at least “masking” the problem. Performance for the team continued to be good, the other teams had great managers, so while I was spending less time with them, they seemed to be doing well.
And we were blowing away the numbers.
I continued to do that for a number of months, thinking everything was fine. Every once in a while there were some problems, but I always seemed to be able to pull a rabbit out of a hat and fix it. I thought no one really knew the issue with Ron. Again, I thought I was being successful in managing or at least masking the issue.
Until that Friday morning!
The results showed that everyone in the organization knew I had a problem with Ron. He just wasn’t performing (he even knew it). But I wasn’t addressing the issue. I was working around it and trying to mask it.
Ron’s own people were tougher on their feedback about me than they were about Ron. They knew he was the wrong guy, but they were pissed at me for not addressing the issue head on. (Remember, these were my handpicked guys–my rock stars!) People on the other teams said the same thing, the other managers said the same thing.
What I thought I was masking was, in reality, obvious to everyone! I was avoiding it, I wasn’t stepping up and addressing it. Not doing so was having a negative impact on the organization and a very negative impact on their perception of my performance.
One of the write-in comments was particularly painful. I don’t remember the whole comment but I remember one phrase, “Dave is gutless.”
Everyone had lost respect for me, because I wasn’t stepping up to address this performance issue with Ron.
I was stunned and shocked.
My manager talked to me very calmly, walking through the feedback, discussing my reactions Surely they couldn’t be talking about me in that way–I had a little bit if denial.
As we concluded the meeting, he calmly said a sentence that rings in my ears to this day.
“Dave, you need to fix your problem before I am forced to fix mine.”
No threat, no maliciousness, just the cold reality. I had become his problem performer. Even though we were blowing away the numbers, I wasn’t fulfilling my responsibility as a manager.
It was clear to me, if I didn’t take action quickly, I’d be out of my job.
I was properly motivated. My manager and I talked about what we would do. Could Ron contribute in another role, would I have to put him on a measured mile, what were the right next steps.
I started having some tough conversations with Ron, he actually made it very easy on me. He knew he wasn’t making it. He could see me managing around him. He wasn’t happy, and thought he could contribute better in another role with another part of the organization. We moved him there, he became an A player. I found a super start to replace him. Over time I recovered.
But those words still haunt me, “Dave, you need to fix your problem before I am forced to fix mine.”
Do you have “problems” in your organization that you aren’t fixing?
Are you managing around them or ignoring them?
Remember, your manager may be wondering whether she needs to fix her problem.