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Friday, November 18, 2011

Firing a coach, and similar actions

The controversy about whether to fire Carolina Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice is a reminder that decisions to let an individual go, to cancel a project, or to reorganize an organization radically arise inevitably and naturally. Handling these situations is a primary task for a leader in business or a non-profit. 

Making no decision -- in other words, sitting on one's hands -- is a deliberate decision itself, although often it's not recognized as such. There are times when a matter isn't ripe for action and it's best to allow things to continue a little longer, particularly if there is a high likelihood of turn-around, or there is no immediate good alternative, or the groundwork for change among stakeholders hasn't yet been done. 

That said, as I look back on 30 years of managerial experience, my mistakes have almost always been failing to act quickly enough to remove an underperforming person, to close a failing initiative, or to point an organization in a different direction. Wishful thinking or forceful optimism goes only so far. The unfortunate truth is that for every successful turnaround there are five that never happen regardless of how much time, attention, and additional resources are invested. Postponing action is detrimental to those five, their staffs or participants, and their customers. When a change is finally made, the most common reaction is "What took you so long?" Postponing action is, in fact, abdicating the responsibility of leadership -- and pernicious when the real explanation is a lack of courage or hesitance to admit one's own complicity in a bad outcome. 

Nortel's collapse from 100,000 employees to nearly zero required me to perform my fair share of layoffs that were not performance-related. Good people were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. (Eventually it happened to me, so I've been on the receiving end.) Therefore I am not callous about letting people go. It should be done carefully and respectfully. 

However, it should be done quickly and courageously when the circumstances call for it. Making and executing difficult decisions is like riding a bike... not easy the first time or two, and not to be taken lightly thereafter. One's ability to do it well, however, improves with practice.