21st Oct 2011

You're Fired!

Like all reality TV shows, The Apprentice is remarkable for its air of poised and polished unreality. Each episode is tightly structured around a major challenge to be met, with some minor conflicts flaring up around it and a few character-arcs deftly sketched in along the way. All of it leads inexorably to the tense denouement, that enjoyably contrived boardroom showdown in which one of the would-be apprentices gets handed their marching orders.

While we may relish the high-camp confrontationalism of reality TV, confrontations and the consequences they entail are difficult things to cope with in reality. If even the real Alan Sugar, in an interview with the Independent, has professed to hate firing his employees, surely the rest of us can admit to a quiver of reluctance when we are faced with such an unpleasant but often unavoidable task?

In the context of an executive’s first 100 days after being promoted or hired to a leadership role, reluctance to fire or reshuffle the members of an inherited team can be even more pronounced – and even more damaging – than at any other time.

It is vital, in this initial phase, to critically assess the quality of your team. There is no pressure to make a hasty decision – but you must profile the organisation. Try to build an objective picture both of the pre-existing group, and of the attitudes of the different people within it toward you – and reassess this picture regularly during the first 100 days. Who are the key decision-makers, influencers and potential blockers? Who is really on the bus with you? Be able to spot the person who is not a net contributor (ie the person who is ‘consuming’ more than they are ‘contributing’). Address their problems openly and constructively – and if this does not work you must face the fact that letting them go may be the only real solution.

It may also be necessary to recruit fresh talent and energy, either from another part of the organisation or from outside. You have to give your inherited team a chance, but performance acceleration is not possible unless you have the right people in the right roles. Restructuring the team in this way will not only give you the extra leverage you need to achieve your goals efficiently, it will re-energise the team and focus them in a new direction.

You want intelligent and confident people to work for you – people who have something valuable to contribute and aren’t afraid to take the initiative. However, your authority must never be in question. This is a delicate balance, but the best way to get it right is to remember that the right kind of confidence inspires confidence in others. If you can demonstrate, by improving the team, that you are unafraid to stand up to the problems you face as a leader, they will be likely to emulate your courage, and aspire to meet the high standard you set.

Hilda Goold

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