Why executives think it’s a good idea, and why it doesn’t work
One phrase I hear regularly from executives is: “We’re going to leverage their strengths.”
In most cases we’ve been discussing the poor performance of someone in their organization, and I know what’s coming next: an explanation of why moving that person to a special assignment to “leverage their strengths” is a perfect solution.
What comes next for me is explaining why that’s a very bad idea. If I’m not successful in that explanation, and sometimes I’m not, I know what usually follows: a long and difficult road for the employee with performance issues and the executive, and the potential for lots of billed time for their employment attorney.
But before I get into why leveraging strengths rarely works for poor performers, let’s frame the context of why executives really do believe it is a good idea. In short: it works with high performers.
Special Assignments + High Performers = Success
Many senior executives use a highly successful method to pursue new product ideas, build unique programs to outpace the competition, complete projects in the strategic plan, and solve problems that have vexed the organization for years. They start with specific a business need and determine tactical objectives on how to address them. Then they create, fund, and launch focused opportunities in the form of special projects and assignments to address them.
Executives then identify and select their highest performing employees with the right skills to lead those assignments. Those employees may be assigned to special projects, moved into new jobs with specific goals and objectives, or simply have added responsibilities and authority woven into existing jobs. In those focused opportunities, high performers often flourish, grow, and deliver amazing results.
The opportunities are typically limited duration assignments, from several months to several years. They encourage high performing employees to concentrate their focus on mission critical problems or objectives, and they provide the space and support for them to exercise their greatest strengths and talents.
They can also provide the benefit of accelerating an employee’s development and readiness for even larger roles. One of the best parts for the organization: it gets results.
In these circumstances, executives have successfully leveraged the strengths of their employees. They have done so with very little risk: the opportunities were created from specific organizational objectives, and high performers were selected who have demonstrated past success.
Applying the equation to poor performers
I’ve also worked with executives who have told me very earnestly that they are going to “leverage the strengths” of a poor performer in much the same way.
Understandably, they have confidence that the focused opportunity model will work in a variety of situations. They believe it will motivate both the high performer and low performer to operate in a form of directional parallel. The assumption is that if high performers are largely successful on these assignments, then poor performers will develop and flourish as well, even if the same level of success is not achieved.
Seven Reasons Why It Doesn’t Work
Unfortunately, and with very little exception, my experience is that these focused opportunities for poor performers end in failure. While the reasons for failure vary somewhat in each situation, here are the seven most common:
- The core of the opportunity is designed on a talent or ability that the executive believes they have observed in the poor performer, but has not been definitively demonstrated.
- The method of creating the opportunity is reversed: the person is the center of the design, not the business need. This can lead to team resentment of the employee, lack of organizational buy-in to the assignment objectives, resistance to providing resources and connections for success, and a born-to-fail aura that generates workarounds by high performers.
- The performance issues that need improvement are removed from the poor performer’s responsibilities during the focused assignment.
- The sponsoring executive expects the opportunity itself, due to the nature of its freedoms and creative space, to change the poor performer. Consequently, the executive does not offer the level of individual support and mentoring that the poor performing employee requires.
- Employees who are aware of their performance deficiencies are typically extrinsically motivated during the assignment instead of intrinsically motivated like high performers. They are motivated by the reward of improving and/or saving themselves, not on the project goals.
- Poor performers see themselves as having two layers of expectations which causes them enormous stress: They must be successful in order to stay employed, and they must also be as successful as, or more successful than, high performers in similar assignments to maintain or re-establish their reputation.
- In cases where the poor performer is not aware of their performance deficiencies or does not buy into them, those deficiencies typically amplify during the assignment.
I’ll explore some of these reasons in more detail, but it’s important to call out a two major themes with failed assignments.
First, unlike successful assignments that are easy to wrap up when the objectives are complete, failed assignments tend to linger on and on. Usually no exit strategy is determined at the assignment outset to address the possibility of failure, and after years in an assignment, there may not be an original position for the poor performer to return to. Indeed, the executive may determine that it’s less painful to let the employee sit in the modified (and isolated) assignment and muddle along.
Second, when assignments designed for poor performers fail, they have the ability to fail big rather than small. They can produce complex and immediate problems for the poor performer, their work teams, and the sponsoring executive. They can also seed future problems that sprout up for years.
All that glitters
So what motivates an executive to head down the path of creating focused opportunities for poor performers, even when the Human Resources staff or consultant is advising them against it? They do it with the right intentions, certainly, but not always for the right reasons.
When an executive brings up the idea of leveraging an employee’s strengths in order to manage or improve their performance — and that employee is usually a member of their leadership team — the executive will tell me a familiar story. They have seen a glimmer of talent within the individual that no one else sees, or they have recognized a latent ability that no one has been able to activate.
The executive usually provides me with a specific example that they have observed during an event, say a quarterly leadership update or project team meeting. It shines out to them like a bit of gold along the conversational vein of performance deficiencies. Admittedly, those examples can sound promising. If properly encouraged and guided, the executive argues, that natural talent or latent ability will transform that individual into a better performer. Perhaps even into a high performer.
Executives have confidence in their ability to awaken talent in their leadership team: they have demonstrated success developing high performers and high performing teams. They would not be executives otherwise. Encouraging them to reconsider their plan can be difficult, and when I’m not successful, the plan to “leverage the strengths” of poor performers typically takes one of two forms: a job modification or the creation an entirely new job.
Roads of good intention
The first form, and the most common, involves modifying the poor performer’s current job by removing and adding specific responsibilities. Overall they continue to hold onto some core responsibilities of their original job and job title. Their salary and classification are usually held to those of their original position.
As one might anticipate, the subtraction of responsibilities happens along the lines of what the employee has demonstrated they can’t perform or don’t perform well. This removal of poorly performed responsibilities is actually weakness leveraging, and it often defines the majority of the changes to the person’s job. It takes away the very responsibilities that the person most needs to improve.
The new responsibilities intended to leverage the strengths of the individual are responsibilities the executive believes the employee can perform, even though that person hasn’t previously performed them in any significant measure.
Perhaps even more interesting is that several of the executives I’ve talked with believe the person can or will perform those duties better than other employees in the organization, even though there has been little or no demonstrative evidence that this is the case. It’s back to the executive’s true investment in the glittering, un-mined nugget.
In the second form of leveraging, the executive creates a new position that is (ostensibly) designed around utilizing the poor performers strongest skills and abilities. In some cases these jobs do focus on the skills and abilities the employee has demonstrated they can perform, and in many cases they perform very well.
However, similar to the job modification approach, there is usually a substantial portion of the new position that is designed around those traits and competencies the executive believes the employee possesses, but hasn’t necessarily demonstrated. These assignments also involve the removal of some responsibilities the employee most needs to improve.
Human Resources professionals are used to having tough conversations with executives. However, it can be exceptionally difficult to persuade the executive that this course of action with a poor performer may be a mistake.
As I mentioned earlier, the executive has confidence in their ability to identify and build high performing people and teams, has seen a similar model work with their high performers, and wants to break through the problems fast. They want to minimize the impact on the organization and the employee see if they can quickly and efficiently develop a win-win.
I find that starting this discussion in the way we HR types typically do, by focusing on the best practices of managing performance, gets very little initial traction. In fact, I’ve actually received wave offs with “that’s just not going to work.”
Instead, I start with earnestly exploring the details of how the executive will roll out the new assignment out to the poor performer, to their team, and to the organization. I continue the conversation with questions like:
- How will that assignment be explained to the employee and their team?
- Who will pick up the duties that poor performer leaves behind?
- How long will the assignment be?
- How will success be measured?
- If they aren’t successful, will they go back to their original position?
- What process will we use if another employee, perhaps a high performer, complains or feels that they should have been given that opportunity?
- Will similar opportunities be provided for employees who can’t perform the essential functions of their jobs either with or without a reasonable accommodation?
This exercise of earnestly working to bring the concept into the real world usually creates new realization for the executive. They begin to see the potential problems and pitfalls with the poor performer and their team, the level of commitment required, the effect on the organization, and the undeniable risks of failure. They usually begin to create questions of their own.
During the discussion I share relevant elements of my seven common reasons for failure, and provide some de-identified examples from my 25 years in the business.
At that point executives are most likely to open up and discuss performance improvement best practices. We then explore the processes that have been followed so far, such as developing a performance plan with expectations and measurements, monitoring improvement, and providing regular support and feedback.
If the performance management work has already been done, and there was not satisfactory improvement, we explore if the right course of action is for the executive to have a tough conversation with the employee.
If that work hasn’t been done, it’s time to start on positive path of support and improvement. And in my experience, that has been a much a more successful approach for helping poor performers than “leveraging their strengths.”
 I’m borrowing the Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation definitions used by Julie Dirksen in her book, Design For How People Learn, 2012.
 This drives our compensation analysts crazy for really good reasons: market pricing and internal equity are just a couple of them.
The practice of changing the essential functions of a job based on an individual’s performance can set the organization up for considerable risk, not the least of which relates back to the Americans With Disabilities Act and setting organizational precedents. In addition, selecting poor performers for specials assignments can also expose the firm to Title VII, Equal Opportunity, and other legal and fairness issues. See your lawyer for a full menu of potential problems.
©2016 Ryan W. Fleming, All Rights Reserved