with greg layton

The Inner Chief is for leaders, professionals and small business owners who want to accelerate their career and growth. Our guest chiefs and gurus share powerful stories and strategies so you can have more purpose, influence and impact in your career.

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In today’s minisode, I’m going to cover toxic high performers. These individuals can cause a lot of problems in your business, especially amongst other projects and colleagues, and you need a strategy to be able to deal with them.

This is no doubt one of the most stressful and tricky scenarios that executives come across at work all the time. If it hasn't happened in your career yet, I bet it will at some stage. 

To paint a picture of how tricky this is, I'll tell you a bit of a bit of a story about what it was like working with an ASX listed board and executive team that had a key member of staff that was a government relations executive in an offshore asset.

The strategic plan of this business was reliant on this person getting a whole bunch of licenses and things sorted for operations within the country. However, this person was toxic and I want to really create a clear distinction between toxic and just a bit of a crazy genius. A toxic person or a toxic individual is someone who is obfuscating information, maybe holding information so other people can't get it.

They can bully, they can be mean to other people in the business. Really difficult to deal with, they don't reply to your emails, they just take forever to get things done. And it's like they're building a little fiefdom, or a little kingdom within the business, of which they are the chief. No one can touch it. They have all the power, so to speak. And they're just not nice to deal with. 

But very often, and this is the pitfall, the one that the executive team and the board make, was they assumed that this person was indispensable. So this particular story played out over about four or five months. And every time I was meeting this executive team for every month, every time we got together, this particular issue just kept coming up and up and up.

And the stories across the business grew about how difficult this person was to deal with. It got to a point where the board and executive team were 90 percent sure this person needed to go. So I was on the call with them, on the call with them, and I said, “Hey, let's just ask ourselves a question. Have you ever removed a toxic high performer from role and regretted it?”

And what was really quite amazing was every single person on the call, all the board members and all the executive team emphatically said that they've never regretted removing a toxic high performer. In fact, it's the opposite. They can't believe they took so long. So as a result of this, they did a bit of scenario modeling as well.

I said, “Hey, what would happen in six months if this person was still enrolled or 12 months and that you could feel, you could see it in their eyes. Their gut feel, their intuition was this is not going to work. In 12 months, our business is going to be held back by this person significantly. So they made the, uh, the move.

They removed this person from the role. And guess what happened? Wow. Not only did all the talent in their team start to rise to the top and say, Oh, thank God that person's gone. But the government officials, who we assumed that this person was indispensable to, came and said, Thank God that guy's gone.

Thank God for that. Oh man, he was difficult to deal with. Wow. Unbelievable change and the business grew and it went through the strategic plan much more effectively. So what we need to be able to do here chief is have this mindset of being bold and thinking mid to long term. What we tend to do is a bit of a pitfall is when we're thinking about toxic high performance, right?

We think too short term. We think next month's results. We think service levels, suppliers that aren't happy in the short term. You've got to stop that, Chief. Great executives are always thinking mid to long term. And this will be really important for you throughout this process. Look, we cover this in depth in the mini MBA in Leading High Performance Teams.

But I just want to also leave you with sort of five quick steps that will help you understand and make some moves, Chief. You just can't storm this, right? 

So number one is really ensure That you've got the broad stakeholder support to make a move. Go and speak to a key executive and say, listen, enough is enough. We're getting some real trouble out of this individual. If we don't make some big moves, and it might cost us them in the business, then we're never going to grow beyond where we are. Okay. Think about that. Will the business, is it actually being held back by this person overall? 

Okay, Chief, number two. Now you've got some stakeholder support to make a move. What we have to do is get some alternative options. Just quickly scan the team, look for any high performers that are maybe being a bit crushed and held down and also scan the market externally and look for some potential high performers to come into business that aren't so toxic. So stakeholder support to seek alternatives. 

Now we go through the old coach council shoot. Kind of process coach with an open mindset chief. You've really got to be thinking that there is growth possible in this individual going to the coaching process. And in that process, seek to help them understand that their behavior is career limiting. It's hurting their reputation and holding the business back. Right? So you go through a coaching process. If you need HR in the room at the very beginning. Do that. But the key outcome of any initial coaching meeting is that they understand their behavior that has been going on, cannot continue. Make sure you give that to them in writing afterwards and say, Hey, we're going to meet again in two weeks time. And in two weeks, we're going to talk about how you've improved the things you have done to make the whole culture and the behavior of the culture improve and the bad behavior disappear. 

So we coach, then we counsel. You only go to counsel if the person doesn't improve. If the person improves, you keep coaching them. And then you might get a tox, not a toxic high performer, but really a thriving high performer. And that would be the ultimate without having to go through any sort of recruitment process as well. Right? So, but if that doesn't happen, go to counsel. And counsel is a very, very clear message. That if the behavior continues, they're going to be exited from the business. Right, Coach, Council, the behavior that you showed last week, that we spoke about, that we said must stop, that you agreed would stop, hasn't changed. So this isn't a warning, sorry, this is a warning. I'm sending you something in writing now. If this doesn't prove in the next few weeks. Um, we're going to have to remove you from the role. Don't leave any doubt about it, Chief. Be really clear. At this point, you really should have someone from Human Resources in the room. Clarify the process with them before you go in. Right? They're the experts in this. And this can go wrong, Chief. We've all seen it go wrong. So be prepared. Dot your I's. Cross your T's. Know the process you're going to follow. Right? 

And then if they don't improve and you can't get them back to coaching, then it's the ship. The removal. From role. And that's a very clear and simple meeting where you simply say, Hey, we coached you, said you needed to make these changes, you committed to those changes and make them, then we said, Hey, listen, final warning, if you don't make any more changes, um, we're going to have to remove you from role. You haven't made those changes. Guess what? Thanks for your time. Thanks for everything and allow them to leave with some level of dignity. Once again, get the HR people involved on this chief. They are the experts and know all the ins and outs, right? Remember. This is always about how do you improve the lives and the work of everyone in the team. We can get too focused in this moment on the pain one person might feel. 

Now, I remember doing this exact process back when I was working in a leadership role and I removed someone from role within this exact process and in the end she decided, she self selected to leave the business. And while I remember it being quite emotional, difficult for me at the time, it certainly was for her as well. We maintained respect and dignity and agreed to go separate ways. Now, I ran into her about three months later on, uh, I remember the footpath outside the business I was working for. And I said, Hey, how are you going? You know, like, are you all right? And she goes, I'm loving my new job. And I thought, wow, because in the end, you know what? She wasn't that happy. The reason she was becoming a little bit toxic in the business because she was a bit worried on the inside about her own performance. 

Okay, chief. So always take action here and I guarantee when you remove that person, there'll be some just some absolute stars waiting to grow. The whole business will probably remove a bottleneck in its strategy. Right. And everyone will be much happier, including the person that you remove from the role.

Deal hope,