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One Reason to Keep a So-So Team Member

As a consultant I was a wizard at assessing team members and advising leaders on building effective teams. As an executive I found myself facing many of the common roadblocks my clients had trouble resolving. Listen up all my fellow consultants out there: most leaders have the proper insights about their direct reports and team but get tangled in company history, policies or politics that can prevent them from doing the right thing. I know this from experience.

In my countless ongoing discussions with my executive peers about the talent and progress of their direct reports they were usually fair, informed and insightful.  They all wanted the best players on their teams to help accomplish their shared goals so these were conversations they were interested in having. There were always a good amount of employees who were doing well, getting praised and receiving new assignments. And then there were all the rest.

In spite of the damage that a poor performer was having on the team I was regaled with stories about why this was so and why little could (or should) be done about it. Institutional knowledge is one of my favorites. I heard complicated tales of personal setbacks, past snafus, loyalty and simply no stomach to make a move. It’s not that I’m a cold hearted bitch; quite the opposite. But I was struck by the leeway that some people could receive while others suffered or were left to pick up the pieces. I get that relationships and alliances form in the workplace but this is entirely dysfunctional. It jeopardizes the retention of the best talent, overall results are compromised and morale decreases.

I stopped scratching my head over this one when I found myself in their shoes. I was instructed to lay off someone on my team because headquarters wanted to centralize the function and because this person was too stuck in the past. Intellectually I understood the plan but operationally I knew it would be a disaster.  This woman knew how to keep the (very quirky and idiosyncratic) trains running and she was my go-to person. It’s true that she had been at the company forever and was initially resistant to any changes and would never be more than a reliable individual contributor. But she was also the most sought after member of my team by all facets of the organization. I found myself telling my boss the same stories about institutional knowledge and loyalty and yadda yadda. As my boss was explaining why I was getting dinged on my bonus that year he cited my refusal to let this person go.

My take away from this is that sometimes it’s the right thing for an executive to advocate for keeping an essential but mediocre player but you may suffer some consequences for doing it. And this is a lesson that consultants don’t understand until they have been on the other side of the table.

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