Al Switzler is coauthor of three bestselling books, Influencer, Crucial Conversations, and Crucial Confrontations. His fourth book, Change Anything, will be available April 2011.
Dear Crucial Skills,
I am the president and chairman of a large private school. I recently came on as the president and found the school to be in worse shape than I was previously told. After studying the leadership structure, meeting with teachers and parents one-on-one, and reviewing numerous surveys, I think I need to dismiss the current headmaster. The problem is he has only been here for two years, owns a home in town, and has another home for sale in another state. While I know he needs to be dismissed, I want to be sensitive to his family. How do I sensitively dismiss him while protecting the future of the school? Did I mention it is a Christian school? Sensitivity and perception are important around here. Help!
Sympathetic, yet Certain
This situation is certainly challenging. You want to do what’s right and you want to make sure you do not impose unintended consequences as a result of your actions. I’m right with you there. At this point, I think you’ve taken every necessary step to show that you are sympathetic and interested in understanding the situation from multiple perspectives. You have made a careful diagnosis. I commend you for this, and I advise others who face similar tough issues to do the same. Diagnosis comes before prescription.
While you know what you should do, you still wonder how you should do it. Let me address your question in two parts.
First, has the headmaster been given the clarity, the support, and the time to improve? Often when there is a pattern of poor performance, one of these components is missing. Sometimes, there is lack of clarity in what was expected or in the feedback about the person’s performance. Any HR professional can attest that too often in the case of poor performance, behaviors are not documented or clearly noted in the employee’s file.
In the rare case that the poor behavior has been clearly discussed and documented, the next most common problem is that the person has not had the time or access to the resources needed to improve—resources such as training, coaching, mentoring, and feedback. That’s because leaders often assume the employee should already have the skills and judgment to perform. In either case, without the components of clarity, support, and time, questions of fairness will undoubtedly arise. That is why the best organizations have clear, written steps for progressive discipline. The steps are clear to everyone and the process is fair. The reason I bring this up is to ask if you have a progressive discipline process and if so, whether or not you have followed it. If you haven’t, you need to take these steps first. If you did follow it and performance has not improved, then it is time to let the headmaster go and you can do so fairly and confidently.
My second piece of advice concerns what to do next as many groups watch and wait for your decision. If you have followed the progressive discipline steps above and performance has not improved, then you are not helping any of the groups, including the headmaster, if you do not let him go and soon. If he is not effective, staff, faculty, parents, and students—and probably community leaders—will wonder why they have to live with lower than expected performance.
This situation will most likely be painful for the headmaster who, I’m almost certain, comes to work every day feeling bad. Aware that he is not meeting expectations, he probably feels like he is swimming in dark, deep water and something dreadful could happen at any moment. I believe we do a disservice to employees when we avoid letting them go and allow them to feel unsettled and frustrated every day. We need to respectfully remove them from that situation, and to the extent possible, we need to help them transition to the next phase in their lives. That may mean providing a good severance package or serving as a reference for a job we think they can handle. Whatever you choose to do, just make sure to do it with respect.
In conclusion, you need to quickly clarify what is not working and provide the headmaster with a path to improve or to exit. These actions have helped many to improve. If he improves, then your problem is solved. If he does not, then you need to help him out of a painful situation by letting him go. As a leader, your job is to take that action so others in your team or department don’t have to create work-arounds or carry the extra load. This is a leadership lesson worth learning early in your career.
I think you have been sympathetic and you’ve certainly been respectful. Now it is time to be candid and help him out.