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Pssst: Want To Know If You're About To Be Fired?


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Pssst: Want To Know If You're About To Be Fired?

Recently, our company conducted research with a large consumer food company that had decided to eliminate 150 leadership positions.  What an interesting dilemma.

A layoff is a hard reality for all involved. But in the hopes something positive could come from the unfortunate scenario, we examined the historical 360-degree feedback data on this company’s leaders. We wanted to see if our earlier data would provide useful clues about which leaders the company retained, and which got the axe.  We were particularly interested in whether the individuals removed had been given strong warning signs of deficient performance that could lead to their termination.  But beyond these obvious signs, were there any other clues that could have warned these unfortunate leaders that they were in a vulnerable place?

Our findings were more interesting than we could have possibly imagined (we wrote about the research recently in HBR Blogs as well). For any of you who are concerned that a downsizing decision could take your position away by surprise, read on:

Interestingly, we found that two years prior to the downsizing only 13% of the people who were let go were given a negative performance review.  One year prior, only 23% were given that message. The conclusion is both stunning and frightening:  77% of those who were asked to leave the organization had no clue from performance reviews that their roles were at risk.

So what causes people to be chosen for dismissals that are seemingly without warning?  In hindsight, were there any warning signals they could have picked up?  From our findings, we think the answer is an absolute “yes.” Here are the signs the unfortunate executives missed:

1. The leader lost the person who had been his or her sponsor.  And when this happened, they took no steps to create new relationships with senior people who could be their champions from within

2. They were not viewed as thinking strategically about the business.  While these executives’ scores were down to the 10th percentile, or what we call the “fatal flaw” range, they were at the 32nd percentile.  It is clear that organizations expect a leader to acquire the skill of strategic vision over the early years in their career.  Yet this skill is difficult to define. and is very much in the eye of the beholder.  You could say that strategy describes how the firm distinguishes itself from all the others firms in the industry, and how it uniquely creates value. You could also note that strategy gravitates to the big picture as opposed to the tactical and that it means thinking in longer timer horizons than only the near term. However,  these skills and conceptual abilities are not as easy to observe as many other leadership competencies, and organizations have not developed effective ways to enable leaders to learn those skills.

3. A surefire predictor was the perception that a leader was not scrupulously honest or ethical.  This was not a common problem, but whenever it existed, people were let go. There were a variety of different issues here that ranged from poor judgment on use of company funds, fictitious invoices and lack of compliance with company policies to inappropriate comments and relationship.

4. Failure to consistently deliver results. Once again, 360 feedback predicted these problems: Those who were terminated were rated at the 37th percentile on delivering results.  These people were seen as missing deadlines, over committing, or setting the bar too low for others. A common issue in this arena was people who appeared to be running out of energy and losing effectiveness over time. Some had a reputation for not working hard. There was also an impression that many had started their retirement early.

5. Poor interpersonal skills or cultural fit. Many people had been promoted based on technical skills, but were not able to improve interpersonally. As a group, the 360 results for relationship building and people skills for those who were let go were also at the 37th percentile. Many were viewed as weak leaders who were unable to influence and accommodate change. Some were simply difficult to deal with, hostile, volatile, angry, combative and unable to manage their impulsive behaviors. (It is useful to note that many of these leaders were also described as brilliant from a technical point of view.)

6. Resistance to organizational and personal change. There is a strong correlation between a leader’s willingness to ask for and respond to feedback and their effectiveness as a leader. Many of the leaders who were let go were described as resistant to change and inflexible to new approaches. They also resisted feedback. We observed that in the fired individuals the willingness to ask for and to respond to feedback had steadily declined over time. The best leaders continued to look for feedback and to find ways to improve. The worst assumed they were promoted because of their technical brilliance and all they needed to do was to continue what they’d done in the past.

Are you paying attention? Especially in a challenging economy, every executive should be watching these warning signals with care.  Now is the time to evaluate yourself against each of these signals to be sure your name will never arrive on that list.