Getting the right people in the right seats

Getting the “right people in the right seats” as quickly as possible is likely to free up your time to attend to the truly important issues. A few key questions can help you identify where you may have to replace key staff, reassign staff to other roles they are better suited to, or invest in training and coaching to upgrade their skills.

“Getting the right people in the right seats” is a phrase and goal we often hear from seasoned managers during their transitions. Having the wrong people in critical positions can cost you valuable time—often your most critical and unrecoverable resource—as you have to review and repair work. It can also cost you credibility as a leader among your peers and even your staff if you are viewed as carrying and not attending to non-performers in a timely way. Accomplishing this goal begins when leaders quickly gauge the capabilities of their direct reports and other critical staff and decide if they will try to improve individual capabilities or recruit new individuals.

Assessing the team

A starting point for assessing your team is to peruse performance reviews. Sadly, these are often thin documents that are insufficiently informative. Sometimes, the previous leader remains in the organization and you can directly get their input on the strengths and weaknesses of key staff, but ultimately, you have to make your own observations and assessments. In the first month to 45 days, you are probably forming a gut-level impression of different direct reports and some key staff below that level.

After 30 days, I suggest asking seven questions to give you a quick snapshot of your key staff and their capabilities:

  1. How confident are you in each of your direct reports and key staff below them?
  2. Who gives you and your team positive energy, and who sucks energy from you?
  3. Who would you take with you if you left tomorrow?
  4. Who is a good brand ambassador to other organizations for you?
  5. Who is or is not a team player?
  6. Who is a flight or retirement risk?
  7. Who is technically competent but managerially incapable?

Each of these questions is discussed below.

  1. Confidence: Generally, you want to have confidence in three key areas: competence, judgment of your staff in critical situations, and execution abilities. To assess competence, it is useful to frame the Occam’s razor question for each functional area. For example, CFOs may ask their tax directors what they do differently if there were no taxes, and why? A good question can give insight into competence. Good observations probably give more insight into the behaviors and judgment of staff in a business and social context. Thus, 360s on staff can give insight into the observations of others into the competence and judgment of your staff.
  2. Energy: Those who drain your energy are probably energy vampires in the broader organization. You generally want to build a team around those who give positive energy to the organization.
  3. Stars: Asking who you would like to take with you is a good way to identify high potentials and stars in your organization. They are likely to be your “keepers.”
  4. Brand ambassadors: In most functions, you need folks who are technically competent and able to represent the brand you want to create for your organization. Good brand ambassadors can partner with clients and help enhance the reputation of your organization. We will revisit this in a later essay.
  5. Team players: Generally, you are likely to want team players in your organization. You will have to decide your strategy with those who choose not to team.
  6. Flight and retirement risks: You need to identify flight and retirement risks and establish retention or succession plans to mitigate these risks.
  7. Technically competent/managerially challenged: Another challenge is a direct report who is technically very good but a poor manager. This can manifest itself in poor delegation skills and bottlenecking of work in the department, turnover on a team, or poor hiring choices.

While there are other important questions, the above seven questions can give you a quick initial snapshot of your organization and where you need to attend to improving talent in your organization. Generally, you have three options to deal with talent performance issues: replace problematic team members, reassign staff, or remediate performance gaps through training or coaching. Ideally, you will want to have high confidence in all of your direct reports. For reports you are not sure about, you will want to assign them key tasks to test either their competence or judgment to determine your confidence in them within 45–90 days. For those you do not have confidence in, you will likely want to replace or reassign them.

When we ask executives of their single biggest regret after their first year of transition, we often hear they did not move quickly enough on the talent performance issues in their organizations. Realistically, it usually takes between six months and a year in most companies to assess the team and upgrade key staff; according to our labs, the talent agenda can consume up to a day of an incoming executive's time for this period. For example, given the average tenure of CFOs or CIOs—around five years—the opportunity cost of low-performing staff can be significant drag on the progress toward your agenda during the first year.

Replacing or reassigning staff or remediating performance will require partnership with human resources across multiple dimensions. Depending on existing performance management systems, replacing staff can take time to build the case for dismissal. Furthermore, existing compensation systems may need to be renegotiated to recruit critical talent. Reassigning staff to roles they are best suited for and the provision of coaching and training programs to staff is also likely to require HR support. Thus, it is important to get HR on board as quickly as possible to your talent agenda.

Takeaway: Nearly every incoming executive has to critically assess the talent on their teams to deliver their key priorities. Getting the right people in the right seats as quickly as possible is likely to free up your time to attend to the truly important issues. A few key questions can help you identify where you may have to replace key staff, reassign staff to other roles they are better suited to, or invest in training and coaching to upgrade their skills.