It's never easy letting a team member go. Yet as leaders, we carry that responsibility to protect our organization and help protect our company culture. Whether from a Human Resources violation or lack of personal performance, we must work through the tough question, when is it time to let a team member go? On this week's episode, we conclude this two-part series with the Lead Pastor of ITOWN Church, Dave Sumrall who helps us answer that really tough question.
It’s a conversation no one wants to be a part of – “we’re sorry, but we’re going to have to let you go.” Though it’s not an easy discussion to lead, it’s a necessary one to ensure our organization continues in the right direction. On this episode we’re wrapping up this two-part series with the Lead Pastor of ITOWN Church, Dave Sumrall, who’s helping us answer the tough question, when is it time to let a team member go? Let’s get to the podcast…
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Welcome to another episode of The ROI Podcast presented by the Indiana University Kelley School of Business. I’m your host Matt Martella alongside Associate Dean Phil Powell – where we work hard to help organizations make better business decisions. If you’re new to the show, welcome to the Kelley family. Our weekly podcast offers 3-5 take-a-ways for organizational development. And to our loyal audience, thank you for your continued support. We are honored you spend this time with us each week. We would love to hear from you! Send us your questions to roipod, that’s email@example.com.
Last week, we asked the question, when to hire a new employee? Dave Sumrall, took us inside his organization – giving us his insight on when they decide to hire a new staff member. If you missed last week’s episode, be sure to go back and listen. This week, we’re going to the other side of the HR spectrum to answer the tough question, when is it time to let a team member go?
One of the hardest conversations any leader has to lead is one of termination. Even when an employee clearly needs to move on, it weighs heavy on any manager because – despite popular belief, we are all human. And most of the time, firing an individual becomes the last resort for the leadership team. So when is it time?
As we know, leadership always starts with ourselves. So, in order to answer the question when is it time to let someone go, we must clearly understand our processes throughout our organization so we have a baseline to move from.
Dave Sumrall: I think that the key to that is to never get disconnected from the people who are impacted. I think it's easy to lose your way as the senior leader when you get too disconnected from the process - it's why when you watch the show, "Undercover Boss", every C-level executive or business owner that goes out and experiences the hands-on impact of the customer and the employees at the ground level, come back and makes organizational and systematic changes. It's when we get removed from the process, as pastors, when we only stay in the green room, never shake hands with the people, we're never in the hospital, we're never involved in the messiness of people's lives, that we start creating policies and procedures and culture that doesn't meet the needs of people. I would say to every high-level executive of any business organization to always find ways to get out of the office and stay connected to the ground level, the grassroots, folks that the organization impacts, because you get real, raw customer feedback, and you can make real-time changes to systems and procedures that can very easily grow irrelevant for the people you're trying to reach.
(Talk about developing empathy; importance of not being “hard”; relationship development with staff)
Going back to last week’s episode, we need to look through the same filter we do when asking when to hire a new team member – we have to use our clearly defined culture. Going back to a clip from last week, Dave said:
Dave Sumrall: One of the phrases that we have is, "culture has to be caught, it can't be taught". Those new employees will clearly stick out like a sore thumb when they don't embrace it. Then they have to make a choice, "Am I just going to do what the culture is? Am I going to be that? Or, am I going to move on and find another place to work?" And then those that don't have it clearly can see that they're going to have to make a choice - be like everyone else and embrace the culture and honor it, or remove themselves from the organization because it doesn't work.
If we have the right culture, it will act as our protection from always having the tough conversation of firing an individual. Most of the time, a strong culture, that’s defended by the leadership inside an organization will weed people out on its own, as Dave said. Not only will we notice that person is not fitting in, but that individual will feel it too and have to make some tough decisions on their own – am I going to be a part of this or not?
But what happens when we do have that team member who fits the culture, but misses the mark? How do we know when we need to let them go? First, we need try to come alongside them, and try our best to coach them through this.
Dave Sumrall: The worst thing you can have is someone where they don't understand that they're not succeeding, or they don't understand that they don't embrace the culture, in their mind, they're doing everything they know how to do, and they're embracing the culture. Those are the most difficult conversations to have. For organizational leader or department head, that has to be constant, difficult conversations of, "Hey, here's where you were off, and here's why", just practical examples. We like to embrace that shoulder-to-shoulder, while we're in the midst of setting up this tent or setting up parking cones, "Hey, I noticed this, can you speak to that." "Hey, that conversation was a little rough that you had just 5 minutes ago" - we're kind of addressing it in the moment, but with a lot of grace, it's not, "let's go to coffee, let me sit down, let me have this very confrontational conversation", because you can make it a lot lighter. I think a lot of leadership momentum in a person's life, because it's not as confrontational, they don't have this big wall up, they're not trying to defend themselves and defend their actions. I think through constant shoulder to shoulder conversations, you can create this dialogue that allows you the opportunity to speak into people's lives, holding them to the standard of culture and performance. Then when they don't meet those expectations, you just be faithful to continue having the conversations and eventually, they just get tired of getting talked to. Typically, even those that are a bit self-deceived will come around and they'll begin to see, "Okay, you're still talking to me about this, and obviously, I feel like I'm doing what I'm supposed to, but I'm not making you happy, I'm not meeting your expectations". So in the rare cases when we have to let someone go, like I said, it's never a surprise.
And the key to effective shoulder-to-shoulder conversations starts with building a relationship on trust early on.
Dave Sumrall: The best thing is to build a relationship. For us, I would like to believe that from team members who burn out, who just serve, who are good team members, all the way up to high-level staff members, that there's somebody over them, in relationship with them, so that the conversation can be trusted. It will be a sensitive conversation if there's no relational foundation, because I have to know that you're for me before you start to really speak into my life. We really try, from the very beginning, to be faithful with that, let's have good relationships - let's build community, let's make sure that this person knows that I trust them - so that if I have to talk to a team leader or a team member who seems to be burned out and is obviously not finding success, that they're not saying, "Hey, you don't have that room to speak into my life, who are you to say there's a great reputation so that conversation can flow naturally, and if that relationship isn't there, I can tell managers, leaders, make sure you build that relationship with that person and let them talk about their life, let them describe what they're feeling and what they're sensing before correcting because I think that that foundation of relationship can make that conversation so much smoother, because their hearts are open. When their hearts are open, then you lead with questions: why do you feel that way, what's going on, tell me what emotions you're processing, versus, saying, "Hey, you're failing, and I can tell you're terrible, and you need this or that". Just asking questions and drawing it out of people is a great leadership tactic that once the trust is built, then they'll be honest in that conversation. I think the other thing is you have the conversation really early - you need to be intuitive as a leader to the needs of the people beneath you, and how well they're doing, and call that out early: "Hey, I know things haven't been going well lately, and I want to know where you're at." I do that a lot with our team, in fact, just the other day, I called a guy and said, "Hey, we've had some tough conversations, I need to know where you're at, how are you feeling? What's going on? I care about you, I want you to be successful." When you establish that foundation, then people are a lot more open to suggestions and to leadership and guidance when they're navigating those emotionally fragile moments of burn-out.
The next thing we need to check, before deciding when to let that person go, is for burnout. Have they been working really hard and making no progress?
Dave Sumrall: I think that too much of culture, things burn out from working too hard - I don't think that's true. I think burnout comes from working hard and making no progress. We have to make sure that people are winning, and that they feel like they're winning. In fact, when we see a person that looks like they're drowning a little bit - you can always see it in their eyes, the eyes truly are the window to the soul - you can look into a person's eyes and see the condition of their soul. We monitor that very closely in our organization. We also know that when someone is having constant leadership conversations, we're doing a lot of shoulder to shoulder conversations, that they're probably struggling. We're faithful to have that conversation too, "How do you feel about this? Where are you at? How's your motivation doing?" and as people start to show signs of burnout, it usually means that either they're in the wrong role, or they have too much on their plate. We'll cut back people's levels of responsibilities so that they can feel like they're winning, because they need a few good, "Hey, you did that, and it worked out great." versus, "you dropped the ball here, you missed that detail, you missed this over here." - too much of that for too long, it doesn't matter if you're working 20 hours or 80 hours a week, that's going to grind at you pretty hard. In ministry sometimes, it's kind of a job that's never done, because even as you're counseling and helping people, there's always somebody else that's hurting, always somebody else to visit, so we have to make sure that we protect that day off really strong, that we keep people - we call it - in their lane. We keep them in their gift mix, or in a place that they're passionate about, because if someone's passionate, and they feel like they're winning, they're never going to burn out, no matter how hard they work. As long as they're taking at least a day - like Scripture says, "Take a Sabbath" - they take one day off. When people start to violate those things, we can see that they start to get tired and will either shift their role, take away their responsibilities, will send them on vacation, we'll make sure that we monitor it closely. If people can't get into a healthy pattern or rhythm, typically, it's because they're not supposed to be on the team, and we help them make that transition as well.
(Toxicity of burnout inside the organization)
Finally, after we’ve built a relationship on trust that shows we care about them, we have many shoulder-to-shoulder conversations to help coach them, we’ve tried to help find their passion and win to combat burnout out – yet have no success, then it’s time we have that tough conversation and let that person go.
Dave Sumrall: At ITOWN, when it's time for someone to go, it's not a surprise to anybody involved. That's kind of the rule of thumb we use is that it should never be a surprise. Sometimes you have people on the team, they know that they don't fit in the culture, they know that they're feeling expectations, and basically, by the time you have the conversation with them of, "We think it's time to go a different direction", they're saying, "Oh thank God, I really wanted to quit anyway, but didn't have the guts to," or, "I was about to quit," or sometimes they do go ahead and quit. I've always been told to hire slow and fire fast, and I wish I had been a little more faithful to that. There are a couple of times where I felt like we needed positions filled and jumped the gun on people that probably shouldn't have been a part of the team, and ended up creating a little bit of heartache. Or there were times that there were cultural things wrong within the team and I just convinced myself that it wasn't a big deal because I didn't want to have the confrontational conversations that would make things difficult and felt like it would be awkward. I didn't' have confrontation as often and as frequently as I probably should have. I would say that it's been my greatest regret is the times that I knew I needed to make a change, but I drug my feet in doing it, because it just costs us time organizationally - we could've been healthier, we could've been growing, we could've identified the right people, but we couldn't, because we had the wrong people in place. I knew we had the wrong people, and just kept convincing myself that somehow it would all work out, when in reality, God was waiting on me to be faithful with the leadership He'd given me to have the tough conversations and allow them the opportunity to move or to grow… Now we're just faithful to have those conversations and faithful to manage those staff that are here. Early on, when we find somebody that seems like they have lots of potential, but we see some of these warning signs, we just call those things out early, and are faithful to have those conversations of, "Hey, I'd really like for this to work, but I see there's a little bit of inflexibility, I see there's a little bit of pride, and I've tried to teach you a couple of things, and you seem to always have the answers, and you don't have a lot of honesty there in your own life and self-awareness." We're faithful to talk about that now before they ever get on the team, and I think we save ourselves a lot of heartache.
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So let’s recap… one of the toughest conversations to have as a leader is letting a team member go. No matter if it’s immediate termination or one that follows extensive coaching, it’s never easy. Just like last week, our foundation to knowing when it’s time to let a team member go stems from our culture. A clearly defined and defended culture will do most of the hard work for us – as in, it will weed out people who do not fit. They will feel it and have to decide if they’re going to embrace the culture or move on. But what happens when they do fit the culture but are not performing well? The first way to answer when to let that person go is by building a relationship early on rooted in trust and personal care. If they don’t trust you, they will have a hard time receiving some coaching. Once trust is established and we have leadership conversations, we don’t coach face-to-face, rather we go shoulder-to-shoulder. Whether casually in the hall, on the way to lunch, or working on a project together, use that time to mention what they can do better. This addresses the problem in the moment yet is a softer approach to a “come into my office” meeting. Next, we need to address and identify burnout – Can you see it in their eyes? Are we having constant leadership conversations? If burnout is the case, it’s up to us to help them find the right role, take off responsibility so they can win, or give some time off to help recalibrate their heart and mind. Finally, once we are confident we’ve done all we can do as leaders, now is the time to let that team member go. Even though it’s a tough conversation to have, here’s some good news, this conversation will not be a surprise to anyone involved. When we get to this point, both you as a leader and the team member involved will see it coming.
This has been another episode of the ROI Podcast presented by the Indiana University Kelley School of Business. I’m your host Matt Martella alongside Associate Dean Phil Powell, where we work hard to help organizations make better business decisions. Thanks for listening.