Navigating 'The Weakest Link'

  • 13/06/2017
  • Insights

By Matt Russell, Managing Director, Talent
In our current climate of hung parliaments and unexpected election results (both at home and overseas), talk of leadership is ever more present. As business leaders, we are now not only asked to manage leadership potential, but also to identify and nurture it in the hope of building the leaders of tomorrow.

At Lee Hecht Harrison Penna (LHH Penna), we urge directors and managers to think broad and long term when it comes to demonstrating great leadership to their teams. It’s a complex game of simultaneously encouraging star employees, while nurturing high potentials and managing under performers. We’ve come to the conclusion that identifying potential shouldn’t be about a “hunch” or “gut feeling,” and dealing with your weakest link doesn’t necessarily mean voting them off.

As a result, we’ve identified three main categories to guide talent management, based on a tried and tested grid with the same purpose: talent risks, budding potential and star players. We cater our approach to each employee depending on their profile as this gives you the support of a rigorous method while also allowing some flexibility for personalisation for your organisation.

Talent Risks

Talent risks are perhaps the easiest category to define, these are the employees who continually underperform and who demand most of your attention. They are the ones you organise more frequent catch-ups with, and routinely meet with HR about. More often than not, talent risk employees stand out straight away, possibly within the first days, or even hours, of their employment, and will seem to be operating on a completely different wave from the rest of your team: taking significantly more or less time to perform this or that task, or attributing priorities in reverse. All things taken together, it amounts to a culture clash between organisation and individual.

The preferred approach is often to find ways to manage this group of people out, but it’s worth thinking outside the box here by considering a move to other departments across your company, or even by creating a whole new role that is catered to the employee’s strengths. At first glance, it might seem surprising to go through the effort of creating another position for an employee that isn’t meeting your expectations, but all too often performance is not so much about innate talent or ability as it is about finding the right cultural fit. By thinking strategically and considering lateral moves you are ensuring the training and time you have devoted to an employee isn’t wasted, and at worst cashed in by your competitor.

Dealing with ‘talent risks’ is very similar to dealing with the more problematic of your children. As such, it’s important to use similar techniques in managing them as you would in parenting: do not place blame on an individual or lapse into daunting sermons, also be careful not to ostracise or alienate, and always start evaluations and appraisals by asking questions. Conclude meet-ups by giving suggestions instead of snapping orders. Make sure you are always assessing your own behaviour as a manager: are you leading by example? Are you letting your frustration get the better of you?

We often turn and devote the entirety of our attention to the loudest problem first, but it’s important not to react to each singular instance of a problem. As an executive member of your organisation, it is your job to keep the interest of your company in mind, so you must think long term and globally by asking yourself ‘in the whole of my organisation, where can this individual best serve?’ Last but not least, ensure you aren’t devoting all your energy to dealing with underperformers as this could stifle the growth of other promising employees.

Budding Potential

These are the employees who score moderately to high on both the potential and performance axis. They are inconsistent but solid players, showing much promise and eager to both learn and make their mark; they are the diamonds in the rough of your organisation and it is your job to uncover and polish them. Each day should be seen as the chance to unlock and further the budding aptitudes of these employees.

It is crucial not to stifle the potential of this group of employees by devoting your attention solely on the underperformers. Schedule regular catch ups, and draft objectives early-on that must be tailored to the employee so as to keep track of ability and ambition. The biggest risk you unwittingly run with these employees is for them not to feel seen and thus seek recognition elsewhere. Learn to see reward and recognition as two necessary halves of a whole: one to motivate (reward), the other to gratify (recognition). Reward is future looking while recognition gratifies past performance, both are necessary to encourage every present moment for the ‘budding potential’. All too often, engagement programmes are geared towards external motivators, meaning many companies are missing out on the benefits of a low-cost, high-impact engagement strategy - the simple act of recognition. And the benefit of recognition is not to be overlooked: according to new research by Deloitte, “high-recognition companies have a 31% lower turnover rate than companies with poor recognition cultures.”

The ‘budding potential’ are the individuals you want to push and encourage to become star performers and, in due course, the future leaders of your company. So it is crucial to make sure these contributors are sufficiently looked after or they will be pushed into management roles in which they won’t thrive. So by ignoring the needs of the middle man you could be either running the risk of losing a top individual, or promoting him or her without proper directives, eventually demotivating the people who then report to inefficient bosses — and losing them as well.


Stars need little introduction; these are the employees who wowed you from day one, with their fresh ideas and rare abilities. They are the ones who you might, at first glance, think need no guidance. But paying attention to those that steadily and continuously exceed expectations is of paramount importance to business success as the risk here is not only that these employees will leave, taking with them the knowledge you have imbedded along with your glowing future prospects; but also, and perhaps most importantly, the risk is that they will grow to be unable to take direction. If left to their own devices, stars can become intractable at best and conceited at worst.

When employees are doing well, the tendency is to let them be, thinking a meeting to say “keep doing what you’re doing” is a useless one to hold, but taking the time to address career ambition is just as important as scheduling evaluations. Encouraging your star players to keep climbing the ranks by reiterating an interest in furthering their careers or lending an ear to their own career aspirations is key to making them loyal members of your team. To do so, make it a priority to facilitate their acquiring of the new skills they will need in the pursuit of their ideal careers.

What’s more, make sure you aren’t unwittingly turning the stars of today into the weakest links of tomorrow by paying attention to the full, long-term picture when assessing your employees. Indeed potential and performance are necessary aspects on which to measure your staff, but thinking in specifics is also crucial. Remember your star players are the indisputable future leaders of your organisation, more often than not, they entered your office with their sight set on the C-suite, but if all you measure is performance and potential, star plays might get to the boardroom lacking the necessary skills to lead, like strategic vision and the ability to motivate others.

Identifying potential, and catering to each individual no matter their performance or potential metric thus directly impacts your bottom line, and must be a key business concern; not a mere ‘soft people issue’ relegated to the bottom of your to do list. We should all regularly devote significant resources and attention to assessing and managing potential, starting with self-assessment. As a leader, identifying the ‘talent risks’, ‘budding talent’ and ‘star players’ within your organisation should be an integral part of your first 100 – if not 10-day plan. If the task seems daunting, find solace in the certainty of there being no quick fixes. It may take a while for everyone in the organisation to be aligned with business goals, but the benefits it will reap as a result – in terms of efficiency and ultimately financial performance – are worth the effort.