How to Best Lead Under and Over Performers with Lies Ellison-Davis

LS International

Leaders usually have teams of both people who do a great job – over-performers, but also others who may struggle to keep up with the performance standards which they are expected to deliver – under-performers. We have invited Lies Ellison-Davis-an experienced managing director who has worked leading teams across organizations such as P&G, PepsiCo, Friesland Campina, and Accenture. She will share with us some tips on how to work with both under and over-performers to make sure our teams are as effective as they could be.

Topics covered:

  • The biggest challenges Lies has encountered as a leader
  • Tips on how to readdress underperformance
  • Considerations to take into account when letting someone go
  • Recommendations on how to get the best out of the overperformers

Lauren: Hi, I’m Lauren Stiebing and welcome to this episode of the career success podcast. Today we will be joined by Lies Ellison Davis. A question I am often asked from both candidates and clients is how to manage underperformers. Lies has led exceptional teams at P&G, PepsiCo and Friesland Campina so I thought she would be the perfect person to dive into this with and share some of her insights on the challenges and opportunities of both under and overperformers. Welcome, Lies.

Lies: Thanks, Lauren, it’s my pleasure to be here.

Lauren: So, yes, when managing a team, it can be quite challenging at times. You know, there are various different members within that team. Some of them can be underperformers, average-performers, and overperformers. I was wondering if you could just give us a bit of background on what leadership challenges you’ve faced in your career.

Lies: Well, complex question. I think after 25 years in the business, I think that you can expect that I’ve had all kinds of challenges. And also, at all kinds of levels. But overall, I have to say that I’ve been lucky enough to have a vast majority of fantastic performers in the teams that I’ve led. So, I’d say that my team history skews heavily toward the overperformance side. And while that also brings longer-term particular challenges, I think it’s very fortunate the position I have been in for so long. But yes, I’ve also had many difficult situations. I can give you a couple of examples.

I remember I once had a group of very talented overperformers reporting into an underperformance team leader. And, because of the hard work of this team, the team leader was able to meet his business KPI’s consistently, stay under the radar for quite some time, so to speak. At that time, his team was getting increasingly frustrated as they felt they weren’t being managed well, they weren’t progressing in their development. Now, that particular case was very challenging, simply because it cost me a considerable amount of time simply to find out what was going on and what was the proper action I needed to take. Because it was quite a complex situation.

Another one is that – I think, a very common one and that I have encountered quite a lot over the years – I have got quite a few people who are fantastic at leading themselves, at personal leadership and showed extreme overperformance at more junior levels, but they struggle to motivate others. And therefore,  didn’t perform as well in leadership positions. And there I found the most complicated factor, is that these people often had top-performing goals for years, and suddenly the new manager, the new leader is telling them that, you know, she’s not happy with them. Or, you know, that they are not performing up to scratch. And some have been able to overcome that, and some have not. You know some have really struggled there. So, I always found that the tricky one.

Lauren: Yeah. And how have you managed that situation? I mean, what kind of tips or what would you say about that type of situation? How do you manage that?

Lies: I think that comes back to an underperformance situation, right? And I think in general managing underperformance on the whole kind of has a bad reputation because it is usually perceived as an undesirable situation to be in. And I think it’s absolutely true that it can cost time and it can cost attention that you really prefer to spend elsewhere. But it can also be, at least for me, it has been one of the most rewarding parts of the leader’s job. Not only it gives you the opportunity to help people be more effective as managers, leaders, but sometimes it also includes helping them remove internal performance barriers that they have been struggling with for years.

And for example, in the case of, you know, someone who has been performing really well at an individual level but struggles to manage people, you know, there is an underlying issue there that needs to be tackled. And tackling that issue is going to help these people for the rest of their lives and potentially also make them more rounded individuals. So, to me, you know, to answer your question, for me, it’s a rewarding experience, in terms of how to manage it which was your initial question, because, again, every case merits its own approach. For me, the most important principle is that you create an atmosphere of trust with the individual. You enable an ongoing, a frank, and especially a two-way dialogue, but not a one-way monologue which I often encounter. And you make it crystal clear that your ongoing position is a positive one. This is not a criticism; this is a process that’s going to help you perform as an individual to your benefit but also to the benefit of the company. And I think that’s the ongoing position that you have every time.

Lauren: Sometimes in certain situations, you wouldn’t be able to help the underperformer and you may have to let that person go. What would you say are the 3 criteria to look for in those situations? How do you know that it’s the right time to let somebody go?

Lies: You know, this is a very important topic for me. Because it’s an extremely serious step to take and a step that no one should consider very likely. And, you know, why is it an important topic for me at the moment is that if I currently look at how letting people go is represented in the media. Nowadays where firing people – and I use the word “firing” because that is the word that is currently being used – so, by firing people – if I don’t agree with you – seems to be a deadly practice. And can even be positioned as a demonstration of a leader’s power; I’m absolutely horrified. And I’m afraid that there are going to be managers that will start thinking that that behavior is normal, excusable and even justified, and will start to emulate the behavior – and it’s not. So, let me first point out to say that that kind of behavior is a sign of weakness and not a sign of power. Letting someone go in the end is a very serious step to take. And I think one of the things that people don’t consider is that you know, most people consider that it’s a serious step for the individual concerned. What a lot of people don’t think about is that it’s also not a beneficial situation for the company itself. You know, the cost of replacement financially and the induction of a new hire, basically make it a loss-making activity – especially for the first year. But also, letting people go can really impact on the team and the company morale. So, again, it should really be considered unlikely.

And having said all that, yes, there are going to be cases when it’s in the best interest of the company to let someone go. And looking at these different reasons to let people go, obviously retrenchment talking about that obviously when the individual has violated values and principles that the company stands for, I think that’s one that immediately qualifies. But in the area of underperformance, I’d say that you need to get into a process where you carefully evaluate what the real performance of the person is. And first of all, understanding the performance history of the individual beyond the current moment. You know, how has the individual performed at different levels and different function areas and for different bosses, it’s extremely important. Because any kind of underperformance could simply be temporary. So, the first thing I always do if I spot the case of potential underperformance with an individual that I haven’t worked with before is reach out to their former manager or managers to get a better understanding of them.

The second one is making a real effort to find the real cause of the underperformance in this particular role. If there is no history of underperformance, then what is it in this particular role that is a barrier to these people? Is it a lack of functional capability? If so, that could potentially be tackled with time and development. Is it a new boss? I mean, is it me? Am I somehow not being as effective as I could be in getting the best out of this individual? And while that doesn’t mean to say that I’ll ever lower my performance standards, perhaps I have to change my leadership style with them. Or is it something more fundamental? And I think you just need to go through that process with the severity that the situation takes. Don’t take too long. I think one of the things that you do want to do is you want to set the time frame you have given yourself and stick to that time frame. So, as a rule of thumb, I think you’d want to resolve underperformance as quickly as possible. For a host of different reasons, you don’t want to let simmer. And, personally I’d like to see clear progress within 3 months of having an initial conversation and then find a resolution in around 6 months. If you take shorter, you may not have given the individual the time to develop; if you take longer, it will start impacting the business and the rest of the team. So, you really need to set a clear time frame.

But, you know, within that process – coming back to the initial question – have you gone through that process, what is the moment that you say “well, this is the moment that I take the decision”. For me, it’s the moment that has become clear that the individual, either doesn’t have the ability, the work ethic or the motivation to perform up to the reasonable performance standards that the job level requires. And assuming a lower job lever is either not possible or not desirable. And I specifically say job level and not job, as sometimes there is simply a bad fit with the position but not necessarily with other position at the same level and these have to be counted. I think the thing I want to stress is really the outcome of quite – at least for me – a serious and in-depth process of investigation and working together with that individual to find out whether it is really a structural issue, whether it’s really a structural issue with ability or working ethic or motivation, or if it’s something that can be solved. As you see I take it quite seriously.

Lauren: Yes! Well, thank you for your input. I think it was very interesting. And if we switch just to pick your brain a bit of overperformers – I know you mentioned in the beginning that you’ve had a lot of over performers in your team, as well – how do you manage overperformers and specifically what do you need to do so that they can genuinely feel challenged? Or what does the business need to do?

Lies: Yes, I mean for me, again, I’ve been lucky enough to have quite a few of them and for me, overall, it’s an absolute pleasure because it can be a journey of, you know, constant pleasant surprises. Because people come up with, not only fantastic performances but also solutions that you, yourself, never imagined. So, for me, it’s an absolute pleasure to work with many overperformers. Having said that, I think the most important thing for is setting the boundaries. And that might sound counterintuitive but in order to let overperformers fly, it’s important to give them as much freedom as possible. But that does mean that you’ll need to be clear about the direction you want them to fly in. Be clear in setting your vision for the business to the team. Be clear in the deliverables that you’re expecting. And be clear about the strategic boundaries you want these performers to operate in. And within those boundaries, empower them and let them fly. And give them the full responsibility to create strategies, the capabilities, let them be responsible for their own team, and find their own way of working. Set them free within those boundaries and you’ll be amazed at what they can come back with.

Now, the key question you hear very often after that is, yeah, we get hard about empowerment, but after that how do you manage them on a day-to-day basis? And there my personal advice would be as little as possible. In my experience, overperformers do not respond very well to being overly managed. But instead of managing them, try to enable them. And enabling means giving regular feedback and coaching and giving them intellectual challenge to the solutions that they bring to you. Enabling means removing any corporate barriers in their way that they are not able to tackle for themselves because, potentially, their juniority. Introducing them to the right people or the right workgroups. Enabling them also means letting them take the limelight for their successes, but also ensure that you know, they feel safe enough to occasionally fall – which is a natural consequence of flying high, sometimes. And then there is finally and also very important, make sure that they see that their overperformance is being acknowledged, and make sure it is reflected in their performance reviews. Walk the talk, you’re telling someone that they are an excellent performer, you have to show that there are consequences of that performance. You know, within that career progression, within their performance reviews and within the internal opportunities that they… that open up for them. They are working hard for you, so I think it’s your responsibility as a leader to work hard for them and to make sure that they progress in line with the performance that they are showing.

Lauren: Well Lies, thank you so much for your opinions and your insights. I think that this will be very helpful for both new and experienced leaders.

Lies: Brilliant. It’s been my pleasure.