The Uncomfortable Truth About Talent Development
The toughest part of building a talent-rich organization is letting go of low performers—but it’s critical.
The most important talent development work I ever did involved firing someone. Sound paradoxical? Let me explain why. When I was the COO at Teach For America, I worked with a regional director who was struggling to meet her goals for fundraising and other areas. We invested a significant amount in her development, including multiple site visits, in-depth coaching from one of our senior leaders, and lots of calls to discuss her challenges. When we considered her trajectory and the results she was producing, we wrestled with whether we were expecting too much of her and whether anyone could do any better given the challenges of the region in which she was working. Ultimately we decided to let her go and brought in a replacement—a talented but inexperienced young woman in our network with whom we had kept in touch during the prior year. In just one year, with far less support from us than her predecessor received, she increased fundraising in the region more than five-fold, from $43,000 per year to $285,000—and within two more years, to $1 million.
The hard reality is that if you’re serious about getting great results, part of your talent strategy must include letting go of lower performers. After all, the makeup of your team is perhaps the greatest lever you have in what results you can achieve. In fact, the anecdote above illustrates how one high performer can have the same impact as five or more lower performers—and our experience at The Management Center supports this. So, imagine the impact of having everyone in an organization operating at this level
But there are other, not-so-obvious reasons to make letting people go an important part of your talent strategy, including:
1. Top performers want to work with other top performers. While it might seem like the obvious reason to hire superstar employees is for the work they’ll do, there’s an additional reason: They attract other stars. According to new research featured in the Harvard Business Review, “Starting just one year after the superstar joins the department, the average quality of those who join the department at all levels increases significantly.” That same research found that department-level output increases by an average of 48 percent after the arrival of a star, apart from that person’s direct contribution.
2. Your energy is far better spent investing in your best people than in low or mediocre performers. Strong performers are often highly driven, and so they take full advantage of development opportunities. They also tend to be generally skilled people who can make the most of a small amount of assistance, whereas others may struggle to apply the help. Because of this, the pay-off from your investment in strong performers is often far greater than it would be if you focused on getting lower performers to raise their game.
3. Lower performers take up slots that could be filled with high performers. You can’t hire great people or develop great people already on your staff when you don’t have roles for them. If I didn’t have an open slot to fill, I couldn’t have hired the woman I talked about at the start of this post, and she would have gone on to do great things for another organization, rather than for us.
Far too frequently, managers err on the side of not letting people go when they should. This often happens because they believe everyone deserves another chance (and another, and another), because they worry that they haven’t done enough to help a staff member succeed, because they’re daunted by the task of hiring a new person and bringing that person up to speed, or—let’s face it—because they want to avoid the tough conversations it will entail.
But ultimately, even if you get every other piece of your talent strategy right (including cultivating a pipeline of talented people, using rigorous hiring practices to identify the strongest candidates, and developing promising folks already on your staff), if you aren’t willing to let go of people who aren’t performing at the level you need them to, you’ll never accomplish what you otherwise could. It’s the toughest part of building a talent-rich organization, but it’s critical.