How Smart Managers Can Give Weaker Performers a Path to Improvement


For too long HR departments have been obsessed with high-potential employees (sometimes referred to in HR circles as “HiPos”), instead of adding value right across the range of the workforce.

But the workplace of our dreams doesn’t offer special development just to its stars. Rather, it understands the benefits of adding value to the “average” employee — as reflected by our diagnostic statements “The best people want to perform here” and “The weakest performers can see a path to improvement.”

Consider the case of Kind Healthy Snacks’ CEO Daniel Lubetzky, who has strong opinions about letting people go:

“There are corporate environments where a person has dedicated their life to working hard, and then they’re fired with a security person escorting them out the door. I find that so demeaning and disrespectful.”

Adding value to weaker performers

While he acknowledges that in the case of intentional dishonesty, a dramatic response might be warranted, “The vast majority of people who work have the best intentions.” Unfortunately, sometimes an employee simply doesn’t fit with the job at hand. When such a situation arises at Kind Healthy Snacks, Lubetzky takes very specific steps to help the employee improve. 

Apart from maintaining close and consistent communication and offering regular feedback, Lubetzky works with the person to create a 30- or 60-day plan, depending on the situation, for developing the skills needed for improvement. In the end, both the company and the employee win.

9781625275097.jpgHow else might organizations add value to their weaker performers?

A major global bank we worked with recently is full of people who have considerable technical expertise but lack the high-level human competences that you might find in, for example, a fast moving consumer goods company. Our intervention has been to stimulate an interest in leadership and a demand for further leadership training.

We began with the top team and sought feedback from their colleagues. Very quickly we were able to dive deep into frontline areas of operation where extremely competent technical specialists were hungry for personal development that could improve both their own and their teams’ performance.

We’ve been amazed by the response. For some, it’s like a light going on in their heads — and suddenly, rather late in their careers, they develop the insatiable demand for leadership skills development. The shift in attitude is already having a positive impact on the bank’s performance.

A passionate commitment to employee development

Or consider the example of British food retailer Waitrose after it recently acquired a large supermarket site from a competitor. The acquired store had been characterized by lethargic service, sloppy systems, and an inadequate customer experience.

Waitrose made a promise, however, to invest in developing all the existing staff it inherited — a promise in keeping with a critical element of Waitrose culture, as a catalyst for individual change. The impact of the company’s deep and passionate commitment to the continuous development of all employees (or partners, as Waitrose calls them) has been dramatic for the newly acquired supermarket.

The store is performing so well that it has even driven up local property prices. The major problem Waitrose is left with is the parking lot: usually half empty under the previous ownership, it is too small for the level of demand now created.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from Why Should Anyone Work Here?: What It Takes to Create an Authentic Organization. Copyright 2015, Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones. All rights reserved.