Mike Forde’s Fire Yourself Friday: Stick or Twist – When to move on from talent 

In presentations I’ve given on leading and inspiring talent, I often ask the audience a question:

If you fired yourself on Friday, packed your belongings into a cardboard box, and went home for the weekend to muse on the impact you were having on your role, your company, your colleagues and your customers, and then re-employed yourself on Monday, what would you change?

The spirit of this weekly email is to help with the reflection process involved in that hypothetical scenario. Hopefully some of the themes and content shared can be of value when it comes to musing over the future and the impact you can make on the world.

As the MLB World Series kicks into gear, two ownership groups wait with bated breath to see if their ‘bet’ on a specific strategy to win a title has finally paid off. Baseball is a fascinating example of the virtues of patience in building a championship winning front office and roster of on-field talent. Looking at the past 10 World Series-winning teams, the average time for a President of Baseball to be hired and then go on to win a title is 6.6 years. Theo Epstein at the Cubs was the fastest turnaround, taking just five seasons to deliver a long awaited title for the die hard fans of Chicago. In some cases it can take as long as 14 years from hire to championship! Baseball also has the longest average tenure for a general manager of the top five major pro sports leagues with 3.5 years (most of the other sports are now well below three years for average tenure). 

I have spoken in recent weeks of the angst owners and boards go through when trying to identify whether to ‘stick or twist’ on their key people. In our experience across varied ownership-focused advisory projects, the problem is not going away. So how do you sleep at night wondering if you have given your executive and coaching talent the best chance of being successful (and therefore given yourself the best chance of making the right decision on whether to double down or pivot)? 

For me, a large part of the answer comes in how you communicate expectations for results, professional standards, process expectations and sequence around delivery of the plan before you get to the high pressure fork in the road. Owners, Presidents and CEO’s need to show a consistency and regularity of communication (maybe even over-communication) around those themes so that the goals and processes for the organization are fully understood by those who are being asked to deliver them. 

At a team I worked with once, I remember sitting with a head coach the morning after he had been fired debriefing him on what went wrong. After around 20 minutes of me providing clear and explicit feedback he said to me “why didn’t you tell me this two months ago so I could have done something about it?”. I rationalized in my mind that he wasn’t ‘coachable’ or that he had his own agenda, but the reality was he was right. I didn’t do enough to explain in detail the performance gap he had missed when it was happening in real time. The lesson and guilt stood with me for a long time. 

Knowing when to ‘stick or twist’ is a flip of a coin decision. I don’t believe there is perfect data or intelligence out there that can make anyone feel they are 100% right in whatever direction they go down. That said, what is in our control – with a high level of certainty – is whether we give the individual who is struggling to deliver the chance to address their weaknesses and prove to us they have the ability we hired them for in the first place.

Key takeaways are:

  1. Be upfront and don’t hold back. Elite sport is a grown up environment at the very top. You owe it to your best talent to be honest 
  2. Be explicit. Provide the data and details they need to address in order to turn things around 
  3. Be empathic. Nobody sets out to fail. Even the talent with the biggest ego wants to receive feedback and direction. The key is finding the right moment and come with solid evidence (data and intel, not hearsay) that will allow them to compute the moment and pivot accordingly.

Finally, if you move someone on in their life’s work you owe it to them to give the best feedback possible and create a working dynamic and culture that leads to the next person coming feeling as though the organization is somewhere they can perform at their best.

Be upfront, be explicit, be empathic.

Mike Forde is Executive Chairman of Sportsology

Image: Amanda Jones/Unsplash

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