Ask Sheri

Strong Individual Performer, Weak Leader

Jun 18th, 2019

I currently manage a small branch office in the banking industry. My #2 person has worked for me for close to five years now and through her performance and overall work ethic, I feel my decision to promote her has been justified. She places high standards on herself and has the capacity to not only grow our business but also take over my position when I depart. Herein the lies the problem: her overall stress interferes with her ability to be a good leader to others. When under pressure, she becomes short with her team and on occasion, I even witness her poor attitude affecting customers. I've talked to her once already about this, in which she apologized and then maintained good performance for a short time after. Now however, not only am I recognizing the behavior again, two of her subordinates have paid me a visit lodging complaints. Any ideas how to rectify the situation?

Sheri's Response

I understand your dilemma completely and have come across similar issues in organizations of all sizes. What I have recognized is that these leaders are strong individual performers, yet have the inability to properly coach or manage a team. Most of the time, these folks haven't received any formal managerial training and are promoted in essence, because they perform well. Managing others has its own competency skillset and good leaders either gain the knowledge over time or through focused training opportunities. Those that have little experience in this arena are easily affected by unplanned situations or an increase in stress.

When you sat down with your #2 person to discuss your concerns, it does appear that she heard you and had taken action to improve her behavior. It is actually natural for someone to address their actions for a short period of time and then retreat back to engrained behaviors. To correct this, I would suggest a second meeting to share "consequences" if her behavior fails to improve. These consequences should be easily comprehendable and should spell out exactly how her employment status could be affected i.e. demotion, termination, etc. Additionally, this second meeting should be documented in writing and placed in her personnel file. She should also receive a copy of the documentation. During the discussion, I would refrain from sharing that her subordinates paid you visit and concentrate only on your witnessing her behavior with her team and customers. Acknowledging the former may cause unwanted department tension or other complications that are unnecessary.

Following the second meeting, I would remain close to the situation, both observing and interacting with the entire office. By your presence, the others in the office will recognize that you care about what is going on and that you are monitoring the environment. Your #2 person may view this as micro-management, however at this time it is important you illustrate your commitment to the location. I would also compliment your leader when you witness good coaching behavior. Positive reinforcement is needed during this time. Your leader needs to recognize you still support her and believe that her promotion was the right decision. One other helpful tactic is to share personal wins and failures with her, so that she knows even your path hadn't always been smooth.

In the end, it is clear your #2 person has the right intellectual capacity (the "can") to do the job, although she may not possess the emotional intelligence (the "will"), to focus on changing her behavior. It is easier to fall back into our hard-wiring traits rather than focus energy on our weaknesses. Hopefully she will recognize what is at stake, maintain solid standing and rise to the occasion.