CEO Coaching: Firing the Indispensable One

A line I’ve heard many times in my career as an executive and executive coach is, “I can’t afford to fire/lose him/her.”

Most often, the story is one of a single point of failure. The person they’d like to part ways with (or make a significant behavior change in) has one or more of the following: a) technical knowledge, b) key customer relationships, c) tight internal relationships or d) protected-class status. You believe that you’ll be up Schitt’s Creek without a paddle!

The “problem” employee usually goes eventually, often terminated after months or years of hand wringing. In most cases, I’ve heard something like, “I should’ve done that years ago!”

No question that sometimes an employee is fairly indispensable. This isn’t an imaginary problem. Perhaps you inherited this situation, or perhaps you allowed it to develop. Either way, you own it. But what do you do about it?

You have more options than you think. One option is to just live with a less-than-ideal situation. But too often, that’s the default position when in fact you have better choices:

Reset expectations. Explain that regardless of what has happened up to this point, it must change going forward, and here’s what success will look like. Put it in writing. Tell them you’re there to support them, but change is required. If you aren’t good at tough conversations, practice it with a coach or mentor. Trust me, you can get better at these!

Ask them for a plan in conjunction with resetting expectations. Give them a week and tell them you want a written plan to resolve the situation. This isn’t just delaying the tough call; it’s giving your team member a chance to figure it out. You can then either accept or reject the plan and use it as a measuring stick to evaluate their progress. There’s some chance they’ll quit at this point. That’s not the worst outcome.

Fire them. You may be resistant to doing so, but what if the beer truck hits them tomorrow? What would your plan be then? Could you execute that plan now, on your terms rather than waiting for the beer truck?

Identify exactly what your fear is in firing this person. Is it really true? What alternative truths might there be? What are the consequences of not dealing with this? Once again, get a coach or mentor to help you think this through. I’ve frequently said to a coaching client: “Let me play back to you what I’ve heard you say about Joe in the past six months.” “Are you sure that’s the kind of person you want on your team?” “What does leaving Joe on your team say to the rest of the organization?” They often get clarity at that point. …

Get them to quit. Here’s the conversation: “Joe, we’ve had some serious conversations about your performance over the past six months, and frankly, I don’t think you’re going to make it.” “I’d hate for you to get fired, but it’s coming soon.” “What if we determine a way for you to find another opportunity over the next couple of months?” “I can allow you enough flexibility to look for that new position, and I’ll even help you. But you must meet standards and even up your game while doing so.” I used this with several executives who worked for me over the years with good success. Good people can fail, and they deserve a humane way to deal with it.

If you’ve allowed or created a situation where a person in a critical area is a single point of failure and you have no backup plan, for heaven’s sake, create the plan! The beer truck might be coming!

Leadership is about making decisions, creating highly effective teams and having assertive conversations. That all takes precedence over the short-term pain of dealing with a tough situation. It’s about what’s best for the company, not your temporary discomfort!