Got a Problem Employee? Being a Fix-It Boss Doesn't Help Things

November 1, 2017 | Wall Street Journal

Most bosses know they can succeed by making their lieutenants look good. But some well-meaning executives work too hard to fix weak staffers, putting themselves in a messy career fix.

Overly focused on assisting underperformers—even taking over subordinates' toughest tasks at times—these fixers tend to lose demoralized stars. Rescuers also risk being viewed as poor judges of talent if their remedial attempts fail.

Leaders fixated on fixing others "feed off being a hero," said Liz Wiseman, author of "Multipliers," a book about why some leaders drain capability from their teams while others amplify it.

Nearly a third of bosses frequently jump in to rescue people or projects, concludes a global survey of 35,000 managers completed in July by the Wiseman Group, a leadership research-and-development firm that she runs.

The fixer-boss phenomenon likely has grown with the wider use of smartphones because real-time updates about workplace problems offer irresistible bait, Ms. Wiseman said.

Self-proclaimed fixer Kimberly Harris said she likes to roll up her sleeves and help associates solve problems. She runs America Needs You, a New York nonprofit that helps first-generation college students with mentorship and career development.

An executive Ms. Harris picked a few years ago performed well at first after she took charge of a new initiative for the nonprofit.

Within months, however, the new hire began missing deadlines, making mistakes and failing to pursue potential donors. "I oftentimes would do (her) work myself," Ms. Harris remembers. "I would stretch out my workday."

The nonprofit leader said she hesitated to replace the executive because she feared being blamed for a faulty hire. The woman lasted a year.

"I should have let her go sooner," Ms. Harris admitted. She said she apologized to her top team afterward because her delayed decision had hurt morale.

Bosses worried about widened skill shortages often try to fix rather than quickly fire flawed employees. "I have tried too long to fix a weak performer because I overestimated the impact their departure would have on the company," said Linda Galipeau, CEO of Randstad North America, a unit of Randstad Holding NV, a Dutch recruitment giant.

"I have seen senior leaders lose their jobs" as a result of trying to fix weak performers for too long, Ms. Galipeau said.

Corporate chiefs who move too slowly to address performance problems can make life difficult for themselves amid board pressure for faster results, said Mike Magsig, who leads the board and CEO practice for recruiter DHR International.

In late 2012, Mr. Magsig recalled, the head of a financial-services company chose a marketing maven to command a costly, new business initiative. The new executive's management team soon complained to directors that she was ignoring finance, operations and equally critical areas.

"She decided to play it safe and stuck with what she knew," said Mr. Magsig, who was then advising the company’s board.

The chief executive sought to rescue his recruit. He brought in a coach, tapped a retired company executive as her informal mentor and gave her feedback after attending some of her staff meetings. He also repeatedly told fellow board members that he needed more time to fix things.

But after 18 months, directors ran out of patience, according to Mr. Magsig. They ousted the CEO—and within two weeks, fired his weak marketing executive as well.

At Locals 8 Hospitality Group, which owns 12 restaurants in four states, Chief Executive and founder Al Gamble learned valuable lessons from his attempted rescue of a chief operations officer. He recruited a restaurant-industry veteran in late 2013, hoping he could someday promote the systems expert to president of the Hartford, Conn., concern.

But the newcomer had a hierarchical management style, favoring email over personal encounters, Mr. Gamble said. "He struggled to gain loyalty from all levels."

Colleagues openly complained about the chief operations officer's rigid approach. Two vice presidents who disliked the potential president quit to start their own business. "We never believed in him," Mr. Gamble said the pair subsequently told him.

Cristina Filippo, a leadership coach whom Locals 8 had retained during this period, said she urged Mr. Gamble to fire someone "the first time you get that instinct."

The Locals 8 leader said he refused to do so with his would-be president because "I thought I could move him into the right seat." He took several corrective steps, such as frank chats about how his recruit could succeed at the entrepreneurial firm by letting his team make decisions without him, for instance. Mr. Gamble also selected a deputy whom the operations chief had worked with elsewhere.

Nevertheless, the CEO dismissed the senior executive in fall 2015—about six months after Dr. Filippo had made her suggestion.

"He was ultimately not a cultural fit" for a business that values informal interactions between management and employees, Mr. Gamble observes. Fixer bosses "can have a stubborn or unrealistic belief that everyone is redeemable."