The weed’s gotta go. Seriously. It’s killing your organization.
Weeds grow and reproduce quickly. They crowd out or restrict light to more desirable plants and use up the limited nutrients in the soil. They often have similar characteristics to the plant they are crowding out – making it difficult to distinguish a bad weed from the “good” ones. And they tend to proliferate in land that has been “disturbed” by outside environmental effects.
In a company, a “weed” is the employee who compromises the organization’s health, wellbeing, and capacity for change. There are many varieties of organizational weeds, often going by the names “Toxic Employee”, “Resistor to Change”, “Rumormonger”, “Backbiter”, or “The High Performing Underminer”. These are common weeds that most organizations can identify fairly easily.
But there’s another type of weed that’s tough to identify and even tougher to address: The (Obsolete) Star Employee.
The agriculturist and author J.M. Torell defined a weed as a plant that interferes with management objectives for a given area of land at a given point in time. In other words, a weed is only a weed if it is growing where it is not wanted. The same growth in a different environment just might be welcome.
I don’t know if Torell had any publishing or media experience, but his definition seems uncannily appropriate for what our industry is dealing with.
Companies in our industry are undergoing significant structural change – where entire business models are shifting – and they are struggling with how to handle their star employees.
In several companies I’ve worked with, the revenue wasn’t shifting as fast as the models, which required them to preserve the existing streams as well as they could while they reshaped for the new environment.
Torell’s definition applies perfectly here. An employee who, in the “old” business, was a star performer was now, in this new environment and through no fault of his or her own, a weed. These long-time, high-performing, well-connected, revenue-producing employees were now becoming obsolete. So of course the plan was to promote them.
Well, yes. To preserve the revenue and retain the employee during a tumultuous time of change, each of these organizations planned to (or did) promote these individuals into a “special” role. A win/win for everyone, no? The organization secures the revenue through the transition, the employee is recognized and rewarded, and the organization…well, that’s why it’s not a win/win/win.
The problem with the promotion approach is that the organization delivers a mixed message to its employees. Worst case: the employee (or others) uses the promotion as “proof” that the old business is still intact and will prevail, sowing seeds of doubt throughout the rest of the organization.
As a result, the “old” business model and all it represents is the lucky recipient of the political, cultural and HR capital that the organization desperately needs elsewhere: in clear support of its new direction.
Maybe. Whether to preserve, promote or yank the Star Employee is a serious strategic matter. Consider:
If the Star’s current contribution is not central to the new direction, if you would use the position’s funding elsewhere in the organization (i.e., not to refill the exact role as is), and if your Star is not unequivocally dedicated to the new direction (despite self-interest), then it’s time to yank the weed.
It is important to note the distinction between your Star as a person and your Star’s role. If the role is obsolete but the person can transition, then yank the role and transfer the person. If the role is obsolete and the person is a negative internal or external influence even after attempts at behavior change, then they are killing your organization, and your business will significantly benefit from their dismissal. The key is to make the strategic decision and take action sooner rather than later.
Weeds do have their good side. Under controlled circumstances, many of them can greatly benefit our gardens – and our organizations. They hold topsoil (market position), pull up water and nutrients (revenue/clients), help control insects (competitors) and more. If your Star Employee Weed is one of these, and this approach strategically supports the business – by all means preserve them for the transition. In the best case, you and your Star talk openly and honestly about the current expectations and the future obsolescence of their role. The employee sees the move for what it is, understands and accepts the transition role, and is expressly supportive of the new direction whether or not he or she is to be part of it long term.
“A weed is a plant that interferes with management objectives for a given area of land at a given point in time.” Commitment to strategic objectives means having the courage to change the landscape, and being honest with those you expect to support those objectives.