Firing A Popular But Underperforming Manager

Feelings aside
Underperformance
Firing
Internal Communication

7 June, 2018

Adam Kanouse, CTO of Narrative Science, discusses why he let go one of his popular managers and how he communicated this to his organization.

Problem

One of my managers had been working at my organization for around four years and was fairly popular from a personality perspective. The team really liked working with him and he did a really good job in terms of explaining organizational decisions to them and acting as their voice to management. However, he had received feedback that at times he avoided delivering bad news or having tough conversations, and tended to commiserate with junior engineers vs. explaining to them why hard decisions were made. Ultimately, we were interviewing for a more junior person to report to him and a more senior person applied, and when I compared the senior person's skills with that of the manager it quickly became very clear that the manager was underperforming and that he was missing some vital skills.

Actions taken

The primary job of a leader to to make the team successful, so I realized that it was up to me to make a change to maximize the probability of our success. Ultimately, I had to make the decision to let him go. The manager had received some constructive performance feedback before, so this wasn't completely out of the blue, however, he was a good friend of mine, which made this even more difficult. I met with the manager to let him know what was happening, explained why we were letting him go, and because I really liked this guy I offered to help him find his next job. Following my decision, it was important to make the rest of the organization understand without making the manager look bad. I scheduled a meeting with everyone who manages people in my organization and walked them through my reasoning, what was happening, and when the change would take place. My team asked good questions and challenged my thinking, which was good because then each of them could represent the decision to their direct reports. That evening, I sent everyone in the engineering organization an email letting people know the same things I had talked about in the meeting, but without diving into the manager's performance concerns. Some of our engineers questioned why we couldn't find another position but this gave me the chance to explain that I had already moved him around a couple of times and had tried to find the right fit for him. It also gave me the chance to explain what the company's priorities are and what my priorities are. Ultimately, it turned out pretty well. A number of his peers voiced that they hadn't been getting what they needed from him, but hadn't spoken up about it because they liked him. This meant there had been a lack of accountability at a peer-to-peer level. In addition, a couple of people who had reported to him directly had also been quite frustrated with his management style. Although it was gut-wrenching at the time, in the end, it turned out to be absolutely the right decision.

Lessons learned

When I found out that his peers hadn't been holding him accountable when he wasn't getting them what they needed, this raised some red flags for me. As a CTO, I shouldn't have to be the one holding people accountable when they don't do what they should be doing. If I have to do this, this suggests that there is an underlying trust or conflict-avoidance issue. As a result of this realization, I have kicked off some other processes within my direct reports around being able to call each other out and being clear about what success looks like.


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