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A thesis that can be painful to execute

Oct 1, 2007 12:00 AM

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In last month's column, I referred to the book “Winning” by Suzy Welch and Jack Welch, onetime chairman of General Electric. I agree with their thesis that employees are slotted into the top 20 percent, the middle 70 percent and the bottom 10 percent. I also concur with their belief that those three categories of subordinates need to be managed up or out. Because I've followed that advice over my managerial career, I thought I'd share some personal experiences.

In 1982, Dun & Bradstreet invited 100 of its top executives to attend a weeklong seminar at a conference center in upstate New York. We were divided into 10 groups of 10, and three West Coast consultants facilitated each session. The message was simple. There are four types of managers ranging from the “dictatorial” (who tells employees exactly what to do) to the “laissez faire” (who hires people he or she feels can accomplish the task at hand, explains the job responsibilities and allows the employee to work with minimum guidance). The middle two managers offer less supervision than the one who is dictatorial. Conversely, employees fall into the same four categories, ranging from the person who wants to be told exactly what to do, to the one who wants to little or no supervision. Prior to the seminar, the consultants interviewed 20 of the people who reported directly to the individual attendees to determine whether those staffers were compatible with the attendee's management style.

That's ‘laissez,’ not ‘lazy’

I fell into the “laissez faire” category, and in a 1:1 session with the consultants, I learned that three of my higher-ranking subordinates were uncomfortable with my style and wanted more direction. By the way, one of the teaching tools used was the movie “Twelve O'clock High,” the 1949 release that depicted a World War II bomber squad based in Britain cracking under the strain and stress of their assignment. More importantly, the movie illustrates the four different management styles used by the officers and the four different subordinate types under their command. During our week of seminars, we probably watched the 132-minute film 10 times. I still have a copy of the tape to remind me of the experience.

When I arrived back in the office, I immediately identified the three people who I expected were the culprits. I met with each one individually and discussed the situation. “I hired you because I thought you could do the job effectively. I don't have the time or patience to oversee every move you make,” I told each one. “The decision is yours,” I added. One person felt he couldn't handle the job on his own and quit. The second said she was confident she could fulfill her job functions. The third said he would try to adjust to management style, but two months later I was forced to dismiss him.

Upon review…

With a larger staff, it's virtually impossible to assess each member of your team, and that's why reviews are so important. (I never was a big fan of semi-annual or annual reviews, until several reviews submitted by some of my associates revealed slippage in an individual's performance.) Sales people are much easier to measure and assess because figures seem to tell the whole story, but reviews are necessary to judge the performances of non-sales staff.

In one case, a salesperson whose market share was among those of the leaders began to slide. I called him into my office for a discussion. I learned he had recently gone through a difficult divorce. Six months later, he was replaced. Occasionally, there is a better option than dismissal. At one point, the company was trying to find slots for people who had worked for a discontinued operation. I had just promoted my assistant, who had been with me for six years, to the position of business manager, and I need a replacement. I interviewed one of the available women, who seemed smart and sharp. After only a month on the job, I called her in and told her I had good news and bad. The bad news, I explained, was that she was the worst assistant I had ever had. “What's the good news?” she asked. “I'm promoting you to marketing manager,” I said, as I watched the smile build on her face. Today she is the marketing manager of one of the printing industry's largest vendors.

And each time I was promoted, I found another chance to promote from within. When our unit was sold in 1986, I boasted a list of the longest tenured employees within our five divisions. Like dirty diapers, on occasion, an ineffective employee has to be changed. It can be a messy job, but someone has to do it. Though the decision to fire or promote isn't always easy, it pays off in the long run.

M. Richard Vinocur is president of Footprint Communications. E-mail him at