Picture, if you will, the chief executive officer of a Fortune 500 company slumped over a conference table, holding his head in his hands, anguishing over whether the time had come to pull the plug on one of his most senior executives. “Tell me,” he asks in despair, “is it this hard for everybody?”
Yes, it is.
Of all the complex, sensitive, and stressful issues that confront CEOs, none consumes as much time, generates as much angst, or extracts such a high personal toll as dealing with executive team members who are just not working out. Billion-dollar acquisitions, huge strategic shifts, even decisions to eliminate thousands of jobs—all pale in comparison with the anxiety most CEOs experience when it comes to deciding the fate of their direct reports.
To be sure, there are exceptions. Every once in a while, an executive fouls up so dramatically or is so woefully incompetent that the CEO’s course of action is clear. However, that’s rarely the case. More typically, these situations slowly escalate. Early warning signs are either dismissed or overlooked, and by the time the problem starts reaching crisis proportions, the CEO has become deeply invested in making things work. He or she procrastinates, grasping at one flawed excuse after another. Meanwhile, the cost of inaction mounts daily, exacted in poor leadership and lost opportunities.