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Leaders Must Have the Courage to Tell It Straight

Our Fordham Leadership Forum guest CEOs tell us that great people are what enable a company to thrive in a sluggish economy. In a strong economy, lots of mediocre people fly high, swept along by the momentum. But when times are tough, it’s the self-motivated achievers who help companies not only survive, but exceed expectations. It blows my mind when I hear the dictum, “No bonuses, and no increases, across the board.” Although I’ve been in those situations—dictated to me by the parent company—I’ve always found a way to get around the decree and reward my top performers.

MetLife’s Bill Toppeta told us, “It’s hard to be liked when you’re the one telling an employee that his performance is not up to snuff. But my experience is that if you are honest with people, ultimately they will respond in one of two ways: Either they’ll respect you for it and work harder, or they’ll leave… and in either case that’s not so bad.” Consensus among our Fordham speakers was that to be effective you have to be respected and admired, not necessarily liked.

When Howard Safir was Commissioner of the New York City Police Department, he did something daring when it came to selecting his first deputy commissioner, his number-two person. Safir is a strong advocate for going against the ingrained culture of an organization when he thinks it’s a necessary step in helping the organization grow and renew itself. The role of the first deputy commissioner is a critical one. Should the commissioner become incapacitated for any reason, the first deputy has to be prepared to seamlessly step into the lead position. Safir interviewed all the chiefs in rank order from the four stars down to the one stars. Whom did he choose? A “lowly” one-star chief. Safir picked him over all the higher-ranking four-star candidates because he believed in the individual’s honor, record and sense of duty to the job.

This choice produced a lot of fallout in the organization. The other chiefs were angry that this upstart one-star chief was going to be their boss. Safir had placed merit above accepted procedure, throwing a monkey wrench into the department’s bureaucracy. But he believed that just as the man had won him over with his character and quality, so too would he win over the others. And not because of rank, but because of who he was and what he was capable of doing.

“Quality is beyond rank,” Safir told me. And his courage as a leader proved out once again. The other New York City deputies came to deeply respect the first deputy commissioner and Safir, for having had the guts to do what he thought was right when he knew full well the decision would be unpopular. A decision like that can change the entire culture of an organization. It can take a sleepy organization and rouse it from its slumber.

Do all managers give more weight to merit than seniority? I wish I could say yes! Sadly, it’s more the exception than the rule in traditional organizations. But that is changing. In this rapidly moving world, wise leaders realize that the people to recruit are the ones who come with an urgency to grow without limits.

One of my favorite maxims from the daring Herb Kelleher, former CEO of Southwest Airlines, is, “Hire for attitude, train for skill.” Big difficulties can arise when you hire people who have great skills “on paper,” but then they turn out to have attitude issues. Skills can be learned, but a bad attitude is a personal problem, and if a person can’t find it within him or herself to get with the program, firing is the only solution.

And by the way, anybody who says “I’ve fired a lot of people and it’s become part of the drill for me” is either psychotic or a liar. I still get sick the night before I have to fire anybody. But when employees fall short, you have to have the courage to walk your talk, to confront the issue and make the necessary change. It’s difficult to terminate an associate, be it someone new or someone you’ve worked with forever—but you have to do what you have to do. I don’t know anyone who’s really good at it. But if you can’t do it, you risk losing the respect of your top performers. They’ll look elsewhere for a level playing field.

Bill Toppeta makes the point that it’s best to show respect for a person even when you have to strongly criticize performance. This can be a real challenge, but as the wise chair of the Leader to Leader Institute and former head of the Girl Scouts of America, Frances Hesselbein, once told me, sometimes good leadership just comes down to good manners.

Leading is as much about letting go of your people as it is about holding on to them. You have to provide an environment in which your employees can personally excel. Staffers who step up to the plate and make it happen every day deserve recognition and above average compensation for their efforts, regardless of whether the company is experiencing good or bad economic times. Just as you have to have the courage to weed out your weak players, you must take care of your top achievers, no matter what. Because if you don’t, they’ll move on to work for someone who will.