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  • Waldemar Kohl, Founder, Kohl Consulting

CEO Courage: Removing the Toxic Team Member

“How are things coming along with the leadership team? Let’s start with your meetings - is the team exhibiting the new behavioral norms you committed to, and are you still laser-focused on your ‘rallying cry’ and shared scorecard?”

Most check-in conversations I have with CEOs following a 2-day offsite begin this way. Why? Because we know that the two most significant drivers of team cohesion are 1) the vulnerability and courage of the leader, and 2) the effectiveness of team meetings.

During these regular calls, we also spend time discussing hot topics or urgent issues affecting the team and organization. More often than not I’ll end up asking, “What have you decided to do about Fred? You know you can’t let this continue. It’s not only holding your team back, but it’s impacting the health of the entire organization.”

Dealing with “Fred” (the executive team member who’s disrupting the team and doesn’t fit the culture) is where I’ve found leaders fail most often. Even the most intelligent, experienced, and seemingly most committed to organizational health, struggle to take action. To be clear, we’re not talking about a team member who isn’t hitting her performance numbers. This is about the executive who is delivering business results, but who undermines team trust and cohesion, is self-serving and dismisses accountability for bad behavior. The leader has provided coaching, and peers have offered feedback - all to no avail.

The ability for this one decision of inaction to destroy a company is so real that my colleague, Brian, warned a recent client that he will start every future check-in call with “Is Fred still working there?” If the answer is “yes”, then the next question is "Why? Did Fred change his behavior based on your coaching (the ideal state)? Or are you just avoiding a difficult, but important conversation and the accompanying actions?” No real leadership coaching can be effective until the leader addresses the cancer to his team.

Why is it that leaders exhibit such a resistance to firing toxic employees, or wait so long that the damage is nearly irreparable? Here are some of the sentiments I often hear from the leaders I work with:

You just don’t understand. It’s more complicated than it seems.”

At face value, this may be true. Removing your Head of Product or EVP of Sales will create a massive amount of turmoil in the short-run, especially for the start-up hoping to secure third-stage financing. There may also be board relationships that further complicate matters. In most cases, however, this language is code for “I’m not ready or willing to make a change.” The leader is rationalizing her inaction.

“He’s shown improvement recently. We need to give it more time.”

Interestingly, I typically hear this excuse shortly after a major incident that left yet another team member scarred (or departed), resulting in the leader being forced to address the issue with the offender. Just as predictable, however, is the subversive behavior that returns a couple of weeks later, once Fred realizes he doesn’t need to change to remain in his position. On one team I worked with, there was an executive who - in the same week - offended a key investor during their quarterly meeting and publicly embarrassed two coworkers during a town hall.

The leader’s response? A communication to explain what Fred really meant, the decision to add another layer of management, and his guidance to hire a third executive coach for Fred.

“Sure, it’s causing friction on the team, but what she’s saying is right. I actually agree with her!” “Besides, if she leaves, so will others in her department. Then we’ll really be in trouble!”

Both of these common responses are illustrative of a leader who’s trying to justify or excuse his inaction. Being fearful of a difficult decision is natural, especially having to fire a high performer. What’s below the surface here, however, is the leader’s capitulation to Temptation #2 from Patrick Lencioni’s book The Five Temptations of a CEO - Popularity over Accountability. One of my CEO clients absolutely knows he needs to remove his CFO - he just doesn’t want to be seen as a “bad” guy. The fear of employees further down the organization seeing him as cold and uncaring will no doubt cost him his popularity, or so he thinks.

As an organizational health consultant, I certainly believe in, and have witnessed, teams and executives who learn to trust each other. I’ve seen team members who once played politics, operated in silos, and feigned commitment, learn (decide) how to be real with each other, honestly debate key issues, and hold each other accountable. It’s one of the true joys of doing this work! Unfortunately, there are times when we need to call out the misfit. Removing the toxic behavior and influence from the leadership team is essential. If you don’t, the consequences are dire.

What is the impact of a leader’s inaction, failing to remove a bad apple on the leadership team?

Your credibility as a leader is undermined. As CEO, you are the protector of the organization’s values and represent the ultimate culture ambassador. Sitting atop the organization, you must remember how loud your words and actions are. All eyes are on you, all the time. I’ve spoken with many leaders who struggle to grasp how even their smallest actions are noticed by employees. When bad behavior is allowed to continue in the organization, employees at every level see the hypocrisy and quickly adjust their own behavior. Dysfunction permitted and enabled at the executive level, which then seeps down to the next level management, is ascribed to the leadership of the CEO. In very short order, you find a lack of followership as those around you begin to question your decision-making and integrity.

Your team wastes energy dancing around the most important issues. One of the most frustrating consequences is how it impacts your running of the business. With Fred still in the room, the team avoids the difficult conversations. From critical long-term business strategy to tactical adjustments, the lack of trust leads to useless meetings -- limited debate, posturing, poor decisions, and lack of commitment. One of my clients became so frustrated with her team’s inability to solve problems that she scheduled a separate meeting for a subset of executives to get things done. Not having Fred in the room certainly helped, but what about the other three team members who now felt disenfranchised, not to mention the resulting confusion downstream?

Employees lose hope in their job, workplace and mission. At The Table Group, we believe that every employee wants to work hard and contribute to something bigger than themselves. There’s nothing more fulfilling on the job than the ability to be your true self, bringing your best ideas and energy every day, and working alongside people you trust. You’ve heard the saying, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Culture is the result of living out your Core Values, the critical behaviors that set your organization apart from the competition. When the leader chooses to overlook bad behavior that violates the company’s core values (or basic human dignity), you will see morale disintegrate faster than anything else. I remember speaking to a group of middle managers several years ago about their role in building trust, cohesion, and alignment. “Have you met our executive team?” they asked me. “They’re constantly back-biting each other, and our CEO doesn’t seem to hold anyone accountable. We’re set up to fail!”

Business results suffer. Ultimately, your decision not to act handicaps your leadership team, hurting its performance and that of the overall organization. With Fred’s behaviors unchecked, the members of this low-trust leadership team turn their attention away from Team 1 (executive team) to their Team 2 (the team they lead). They hold back valuable input to corporate strategy and no longer speak up about difficult issues. Silos and walls are fortified, with executives advocating for themselves and their departments. Politics and confusion gain a foothold, leading your best employees to burn out, lose motivation and leave.

Few leaders are inherently comfortable with difficult conversations, holding their team members accountable for behavior - especially when it’s a high performer. In Patrick’s book The Motive, the #1 priority of the CEO is to “Develop the Leadership Team.” A high-trust, high-performing leadership team requires cohesion and demands a zero tolerance for bad behavior. Consistent, deliberate, and swift action is required to help team members acknowledge and address their poor behavior. One leader I work with in the manufacturing business does this very well. He runs the business as if he owns it, valuing the culture above everything else. He considers the wellbeing of all employees above his relationship with any one of them. And he’s come to terms with the reality that leaders may lose some popularity by holding people accountable. The tradeoff, however, is increased credibility, respect and results. You may even have team members thank you for finally taking action!

Are you seeing signs of distrust within your leadership team? Does it seem to be originating from a common place? Has your team been trying to tell you that something’s not working well with a particular team member? Don’t jump to conclusions and act rashly, but don’t continue to ignore what’s obvious. Deal with your high-performing, bad-behaving team member. A lot is at stake if you don’t.

By Waldemar Kohl, Founder, Kohl Consulting


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