Guest Blogger Barry Smith is currently is Managing Partner at StartFinder, a fast growing Inc. 500 company focusing on building better IT organizations through consulting, project management and staffing. He brings over 20 years of experience in all aspects of technology management and entrepreneurship. His career includes Big Six consulting (Coopers & Lybrand), Fortune 500 IT management (Marriott International), a Silicon Valley start-up (NetDynamics, now a division of Sun), and building nationally recognized, award-winning IT departments at the City of Gaithersburg, Maryland as well as the privately held Merkle Inc.

Barry graduated from Purdue University with a BS in computer technology. Barry also holds an MBA from The George Washington University with a custom concentration in technology product management and entrepreneurship. He is a frequent lecturer and has taught at the graduate level at Georgetown University.

Recently, Marissa Meyer of Yahoo! has taken some heat for aggressively enforcing her system designed to weed out poor performers (the “forced quotas” of certain categories is receiving much of the ire). Microsoft has also received it’s fair share of bad press about “stack ranking.” While I am not in favor of forced ranking systems (kill off the weakest 10%) I am certainly in favor of a systematic approach forcing managers to evaluate their talent and build great teams.

This article will help you implement a recurring, structured system to categorize and retain key performers and coach up or out those who should be in a different role or out of the organization. To be clear … If you won’t do it, someone else will (in your chair or in another organization) … and “they” will end up with the better team … all sports analogies aside.

Before I was a manager, I would complain about my peers who clearly didn’t carry their fair share and worse would hinder decision making or agility. When I was a manager, I privately steamed but in practice wanted to be a fair and kind manager. I had a drawn out “ten strike” rule agonizing before politely nudging “clear failures” out of our organization. This led to much tap dancing, frequent apologies to staff, peers and executives and in all likelihood cost each organization money, competitiveness, potential retention … and in certain situations could have cost me my job.

It was only when I was held tight to the fire via a modified “Topgrading” process while CIO of Merkle that I began to transform teams. It was once I truly embraced the practice — in my own way — that I began to excel to new levels of team productivity and feel I was striking a balance benefiting the organization and frankly benefiting the employees as well. Dr. Brad Smart, author of Topgrading, stated that after “65,000 face-to-face studies … the single most important factor in a manager’s success is the talent the team assembled.” I think of this as the difference between building a “playoff team” and building a team that could compete for the Super Bowl.

Over the years I have made my own “forked” version of this process and refined it to be used within five minutes on the back of a napkin for my clients and friends. When I taught this session during one of my classes at Georgetown University it was the one that brought the most head nods, thank yous and engagement.

Break Out The Napkin

The process starts simply:

“Tell me who on your team you would enthusiastically rehire in their role wherever you would go. They are true A Players. Superstars. Consistently excellent. Life changers. Top ten percent of anyone you could believe you could hire for this role at this salary.”

“Next, tell me who you would also rehire in their role. They are solid, reliable and a good value at their salary. They are surely better than you would find on the market.”

“Finally, tell me who — for whatever reason — you would not rehire at all in this role. Lack of consistency. Fatal flaw. Overpriced. Whatever you choose … but you know you would not rehire them.

This is my A, B and C list. No forced ranking. No certain number that has to fit in each category.

Note: I focus this on “in their role” because it is not true that an “enthusiastic hire” in one role would be the same in another role. Think about how many roles you would be a C or worse and how quickly that may change based on the environment, projects or even the boss.

Plot Twist

Now, things get interesting. It is the next piece that is critical and will truly uncover “a ha” moments.

“Ok, let’s break C up a bit. C is now a wider category who you might not rehire and your current C’s move down to D — those you absolutely would not rehire. You can even take some B’s and make them C’s now. Again, if you might not immediately rehire them for this role … if you would want to interview others as well … they are a C (at best!).”

This last step gives managers comfort … it allows them to be fair and consider folks who can be coached up vs. immediately get rid of. But it’s also a trap. It should take those who were “stashed away” in the B category (a “B-”) to “save them” and adds this flag of doubt … that you might not rehire them.

Action Plan

Once this data is together, you need an action plan. A framework for what to do with this data.

Rank A
Embrace them. Give them the most choice and visibility. Rid them of distractions. Maintain close relationships and awareness. Pay them at top of market.

Rank B
There should be no shame in being a B. Also reward and embrace them. Let them know where they can grow and get to an A level in their role. For extra credit, if they never will be an A in their role you may also want to keep your eye out for upgrading them over time as well … but I don’t fret this until you focus on your C’s and D’s.

Rank C
If you might not rehire them then you need to get them to where you surely would. Coach them up or coach them out (at least out of the role). Be honest and document why you feel this way and set a Performance Improvement Plan in place (including your boss in the process) with a clear timeframe. Factor in their stature within the organization. It’s ok. You are just getting started.

Rank D
Be disciplined. Get them out of the role or the organization within 30 days. It is likely that they are struggling, miserable and bringing others down with them. Hopefully, you have a hiring process and discipline that would bring
in a B or better which would be a huge upgrade for everyone and set and keep the bar high for replacements so this problem doesn’t occur again. At minimum, you are ridding the team of this burden and they likely will happily step up to absorb the loss regardless.

Remember, this is for ranking how people are doing in their current role … it allows you to identify where good people may just be in over their heads … and it forces you to see all of this in plain light … ideally over multiple observations. I recommend this process happen no less than quarterly which allows an organization to judge how well new hires do after the honeymoon ends, how well managers do in dealing with poor performers (up or out) and how well managers retain their top talent.

It is also important to realize that it may be that a great B, a C or even a D player could be an A in a different role within the organization. Not everyone needs to be forced out. There are likely political, emotional and even potentially compensation hurdles to deal with to move people around but a great coach (with great organizational support behind them) can and will deal with these challenges.

One Last Step

For bonus points, I ask them to identify on all of their C’s and D’s who is responsible for making them better or getting them out. If those people are C’s or D’s themselves additional attention and care will be required. If they are A’s or B’s it does call into question how effective they truly are if they are tolerating such poor performers.

Everyone who has ever talked about building a “dream team” knows that the team with best players and the best coach usually wins the big game. This framework makes it easy and comfortable to improve a team over a short period of time … building better coaches and players in the process.

Questions or comments?
Feel free to post your questions and share your thoughts by commenting below.