5 Steps to Get Performance Back on Track at Senior Levels

By Heather Campbell

In this week’s blog, I address the third most common topic that comes up in executive coaching conversations I have with C-suite leaders and Directors – dealing with unsatisfactory performance or behaviour at executive level, and how to get people back on track.

The other two most common topics are influencing upwards and managing burgeoning workloads, which I’ve addressed previously.

Unsatisfactory performance or behaviour occurs at every level in organisations, for a myriad of reasons. But at top levels, where the stakes are high, and the ripple effects can impact hundreds or thousands of people, addressing it is a matter of strategic importance.

The problem is, just as at every level in organisations, the leaders who have to address the performance or behaviour are human. And, like most humans, prefer to avoid uncomfortable situations and messy conversations. Therefore, far too often unsatisfactory performance or behaviour is tolerated for too long, and then dealt with in a way that is harsher than it needed to be.

In this email, I set out the key steps you can take to get the best results for everyone.

Nip it in the bud

The first step in addressing less than satisfactory performance or behaviour is recognising it early and discussing it before it escalates. The situation will not get easier if you leave it to fester, others will become increasingly frustrated, and your credibility will reduce.

The sooner you start the necessary conversations, the easier it will be for everyone.

So don’t put this off until tomorrow!

Communicate clearly, briefly and directly

Even CEOs and C-suite executives can find it impossible to say what they need to say. They waffle round the subject and give mixed messages.

This is the enemy of dealing with underperformance well. In particular, prepare exactly what you want to say to get your message across at the start of the conversation – keep it brief, clear and direct. The shorter the better! Do not try to cover the whole topic before giving the other person space to respond.

Being clear, brief and direct does not mean communicating aggressively or forcing your viewpoint. You can be clear, brief and direct, while still showing consideration and openness to the other person.

Listen to the other person

No matter how sure you are that the person whose performance or behaviour you are addressing is ‘in the wrong’, you must not assume that you are ‘in the right.’

These situations are always nuanced, so you must be prepared to listen to understand the other person’s perspective.

Also, remember that no individual acts in a vacuum – their underperformance or poor behaviour is both enabled and created by the environment in which they are operating. You are part of that environment too, so, in listening, you may also learn that you are a contributing factor to the performance or behaviour.

Explore training, coaching and other support

Having explored the reason for the unsatisfactory performance or behaviour, the required change may be easy to make. But don’t assume this is the case. You will usually have to support the leader in changing.

Of course, I’m a big advocate of providing executive coaching for leaders, but there are other solutions as well. Leaders may need training to upskill them in a specific area. Workloads may need to be reduced. You may need to change too.

And this isn’t a matter of ‘one and done’ – review the outcomes as the individual moves forward. In particular, be sure to provide feedback about improvements you are seeing. Far too often senior leaders only hear criticism – but just like any human being, they will flourish when they get positive feedback.

Take decisive action when necessary

Taking the above steps is likely to bring positive outcomes, but there will be times when performance or behaviour remains unsatisfactory.

In this case, you must show your commitment to high standards in terms of both performance and behaviour through your action. This may include terminating the individual’s contract.

Do not shy away from this. Far too often, unsatisfactory performance or behaviour is tolerated, especially if the individual has specialist skillsets, important stakeholder relationships or a long history in the organisation. But every day you fail to take action is damaging your credibility, the wider team’s trust in you and undermining the healthy culture you want to develop.

No one wants to reach step (5) and the goal of the process is to enable senior leaders to achieve their potential in a way that contributes to the success and resilience of the whole organisation, so this is a last – but sometimes necessary – resort.

By following these strategies, you can get things back on track – and it will all happen far more easily for everyone if you start sooner rather than later. What conversations do you need to start this week?

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