The top performer you need to fire today

Sep 1, 2012

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 A version of this article first appeared at Inc.com.

Building a business that can scale involves many rites of passage – tough decisions that will threaten to derail your progress. The first, and for many business leaders the most difficult, is firing the people who stand in your way.

The need to do this – to remove people who were previously top performers, maybe even superstars – happens for the most mundane of reasons: Complexity and the need to respond to it: In the transition from being a highly flexible, turn-on-a-dime, fast-growing small business to a medium- or large-sized scalable business, there comes a point when it’s necessary to put in place systems and processes. These are required to ensure consistency and reduce risk in the newly complex business.

There’s no rocket science involved here – the systems and processes themselves are usually relatively straightforward, and their need eventually becomes blindingly obvious once the smaller business grows to the point that without them, it begins to drop the ball and make expensive mistakes.

To a founder/owner or business leader, the path seems simple: install the required systems and processes, get through this brief period of whitewater, then grow the business to new heights using the new systems and processes as a solid bedrock for doing so.

Meet the Maverick Big Dog

Except there’s usually one person (or maybe more than one) for whom this isn’t so obvious – or simple – the maverick big dog (MBD).

‘Big dogs’ are the hard-charging, get-it-done operators who work every hour God sends (and some) to build the success of the business in the early days. Hard-working, loyal to a fault and powerfully effective, the big dog quickly builds sweat equity with the founder group by sheer effort. Most visionary business leaders have at least one big dog without whom they know they would not – could not – have built a successful business.

Big dogs are good – universally so in the early days of a business. But when the business grows and becomes more complex, some big dogs – the more maverick, independent-minded big dogs in particular – switch from being a great asset to the business to being a painful liability.

Losing their religion

For maverick big dogs, the imposition of systems and processes does two things, both of which for them, is incredibly painful: it greatly dilutes their previously hard-earned freedom and autonomy; and it threatens their special relationship with the leadership group.

Before, the MBDs came and went as they pleased. They were at the top of the totem pole and occupied a special place in the organization – one that they had carved out through hard work and sacrifice. They essentially set their own agenda, safe in the knowledge that the strong bond of loyalty they had built with the founder/owner protected them from anyone else’s interference.

Now with new systems and processes in place, the maverick big dog is expected to complete the same forms, attend the same meetings, submit the same reports as everyone else – and guess what? They hate it.

The problem for the founder/owner or business leader isn’t just the existence of a newly disgruntled big dog: it’s the resulting threat to the entire organization. Because at their worst, MBD’s don’t just buckle down and work through the new situation they find themselves in: instead, they rankle at the process-driven, cross-functional approach that’s required. They cavil, whine, whinge, complain, undermine, and generally make life difficult for everyone working with and around them. They cause dissension, build an insurgent group of like-minded people and force onto the organization a ‘them and us’ mindset.

By their acts shall ye know them

Signs that you have a maverick big dog on your hands include hearing the following:

“We never get anything done around here anymore. All we do is talk, talk, talk.”
“What do you want me to do – sit in meetings all day or get this [insert important task] done?”
“Back in the day…things used to be different.”
“We’re not the business we used to be. We’ve lost our family feeling / soul / culture.”
“Nobody respects the old ways of doing things any more.”

Despite all this, there are a lot of reasons to put up with a maverick big dog:

– They’re highly effective operators;
– They bailed you out many times during the early days;
– They had a close relationship with you – and might still do so;
– You can’t help liking their dedication and work ethic;
– There’s an element of truth in some of their complaints;
– You’re afraid to lose them to the competition;
– You think you can coach them through the transition (you can’t – MBD’s don’t change their spots)

You’ll be faced with some or all of these dilemmas while you ponder what to do with them – but there’s only one solution, if you’re going to build a scalable business: fire the maverick big dog that’s holding you back.

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