I recently wrote a column for the Journal of Accountancy CPA Insider, talking to employees that are unhappy in their work. In this blog, I am talking to firm leaders about how to deal with partners who may be some of the cause of that unhappiness. I don’t know how many times I have had Managing Partners or Executive Committee members share a story of a poor performing and/or poor behaving partner that they have let go. Inevitably in the conversation, they will say, “We had all of these reasons why we couldn’t or shouldn’t take action. But when we finally did, all of our reasons were invalid. We are so much better off without them!”
At ConvergenceCoaching, we are big believers that all people, at all levels, deserve a chance to be successful. Ways that you can ensure the success of your people – including partners – include:
- Defining expected behaviors in writing – including your firm’s core values, your partner code of conduct and other behavioral expectations in your employee handbook
- Documenting roles, responsibilities and measures of success in writing – making it crystal clear what each player on your team is responsible for doing and delivering in their work
- Holding regular check-in meetings to provide guidance and feedback to your people – and then being straight about what’s working and not working so they can address disappointments and change behavior or performance when it isn’t measuring up
- Delivering annual feedback formally and paying for the performance you are experiencing – for all levels, including partners, who should be getting formal performance feedback (upward and downward feedback at a minimum) and then being clear about how their compensation ties to their behavior and contribution
One of the reasons why many of us allow poor performers and bad behavior to persist is that we feel we haven’t done all that we can to support the success of the person. If you’re engaged in that conversation about someone in your firm, go through all 4 steps outlined above over the next 90 to 180 days to ensure you have done what you need to do to ensure their success. Then, if performance doesn’t improve, seek labor counsel and take the steps to let the person go – no matter what level they are in the firm.
In other cases, you may feel that you have done the things to ensure success and things have not improved. But you have been stopped from taking action because:
- You’re afraid to hurt the other party – if you’ve done all that you can and they are not succeeding, you are actually doing the poor performer a disservice by allowing them to show up every day in a “no win” role
- You’re afraid it will be bad for morale – if the person’s behavior is damaging to the firm, like bullying, not adhering to firm policies or leadership decisions, engaging in substance abuse, delivering poor quality or client service, or not carrying their weight financially, you’re allowing the individual to hurt the firm – and its people. As a leader in the firm, it is your job to protect the health of the entity and its stakeholders. No single partner, employee, or client should be allowed to damage your entity or its people. When a leader takes action to correct poor performance or behavior, it generally raises the level of esteem others hold for them – your people will respect and trust you because you did what needed to be done
- You’re afraid that the client or financial impact will be too great – frequently, the poor performer can be easily replaced. In most organizations, team members are all too willing to step in and work to salvage clients and projects because they know how important it is and because they are relieved to see the needed change occur. Occasionally, the poor performer is a big contributor, too – their problems lie in areas other than financial contributions. In that instance, the firm must make a tough decision to take a step backward financially – and, if necessary, reduce costs or adjust staffing to align with the new, but temporary, revenue set back. Often, motivation and morale are so positively impacted that any effect is reversed quickly as others step up, or even join your firm now that the “problem” is removed
- You don’t want to engage in the politics and legal aspects required – While it is unpalatable to manage the legal aspects of letting someone go – especially a partner – or navigating the communications and politics surrounding this activity, in my experience, the “fallout” from keeping a poor performer or a partner with behavioral issues is almost always much worse. The costs of holding on include:
- Allowing team members (including you) to waste precious time and drain motivation complaining about the person
- Enabling the continued poor performance which can cost money, people and clients and place the firm at risk in many cases
- Eroding the respect and trust of others who become aware of the poor performance or behavior over time (and everyone does eventually) and then gross out that the firm is allowing it
- Establishing an unwritten rule that your written rules of behavior and performance don’t universally apply – which gives permission to others to start sliding in their own poor performance or behavior
Great leaders do what has to be done. Strong leaders take action. Trusted leaders do the right thing – for the individuals and the entity. If you’re hesitating, ask yourself if you’ve done all that you can do to turn the performance or behavior around (steps 1-4 from above). If you have, then what are you waiting for?
Drop the anchor from your team. I haven’t met a leader that has done so who isn’t lighter – and better off – yet!
This popular blog from September 2012 was updated and published today because of its relevance to our many readers.