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When long-time top performers drop

It's a reality that every leader must face. Top performers are those exceptional employees that get the work done. They're self-starters. They're loyal. They're mentors and role models for their teammates. They have stood by you in both the good times and bad. Simply put, trust and appreciation flow both ways. But time, business evolution, the economy, and shifts in personal behaviors and priorities, bring leaders face to face with the toughest of business dilemmas: what to do when top performers begin to drop?

A dilemma is a situation where the possible solutions are undesirable, difficult and challenging. Long-time top performers were a joy during their quest to reach the top. They established new performance benchmarks for others to strive for. They brought consistency and predictability to the company. In the process, top performers become top income earners. The dilemma for leaders is what to do when the performance of top performers drops and/or the company can no longer afford or sustain their high incomes. Like it or not, you need to find a solution. In these economic times, avoiding or procrastinating can and will jeopardize the financial integrity of the entire company.

Chances are, you are confronted with this dilemma right now. Here are some no-compromise thoughts to work through this most difficult dilemma:

  • Respect time and contribution: Long-time top performers deserve consideration for their loyalty and contribution. However, time served and contribution does not earn top performers a lifetime "get out of jail" card. Be respectful, but still hold top performers accountable.

  • Performance is masking other serious issues: When a top performer is doing his or her "thing," it can mask other problem performance and behavior issues. It's easy for leaders to turn a blind eye to obvious problems when they're getting the numbers they need. But when attitude, deadlines, attendance and other essential culture elements are being compromised, the company is paying a price. Such situations signal that long overdue fierce conversations need to take place - and take place quickly.

  • Time to level the playing field: Allowing double standards to infect your company culture is pure compromise. Entitlement behavior is toxic. Every employee can see it and knows that their leaders are allowing it to occur. If you choose not to level the playing field, stop complaining about the drama and resentment in your culture.

  • Get out of hostage mode: Too many leaders allow themselves to get stuck in hostage mode out of fear that a top performer will quit. Here's your wake-up call: no top performer is worth keeping just because they do big numbers. Drama, attitude, resistance to change, entitlement, "all about me" anti-teamwork behavior, and all that other stuff is never worth the price your culture pays. Snap out of it! It's your thinking that's holding you hostage - not the top performer.

  • Performance vs. pay is out of alignment: How do you cut the pay of a top performer that gave his all for the company? This is the toughest decision to make. It begins with a one-on-one to totally and completely address the good, the bad, the ugly, and what needs to change. Clarify your expectations, a mutually agreed upon game and a timeline. The one non-negotiable is that pay will reduced if change does not occur.

  • The "protect our paychecks" option: Financial reality and the economy have a way of bringing out the no-compromise leader in people. If your company's financial reality is screaming at you to make tough decisions, you must engage. It's agonizing to let people go because you must cut payroll. It's agonizing to cut a top performer that fell out of top performer mode. You are the leader. These decisions are yours. Accountability is tough.

  • The "career opportunity" option: If you've tried coaching, fierce conversations, consequences, begging and pleading, and you still can't get a top performer back on top, it's time to give that top performer a career opportunity to work elsewhere. They are sapping your energy and resources.

Pass this email on to your business colleagues, managers and friends. They'll appreciate it.

Neil Ducoff, Strategies founder & CEO, and author of No-Compromise Leadership


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