May 2017

"Hire Slow, Fire Fast" is LAZY Leadership

By Tom Deierlein

Over the years I have heard so many people say "We hire slow and we fire fast." as they beam with pride. As a serial entrepreneur, I have worked for a couple CEO’s with that mantra. When I hear that phrase I cringe. Part of that is shame. I am embarrassed to admit that I was the person who gave some folks that news when the ax fell shortly after they started the job without what I consider a chance to address their shortcomings. It was wrong. I was wrong. I knew better but did it anyway.

I have been meaning to write this article for a while but two recent articles pushed me to finally sit down and put my thoughts on paper. The main one was Brian Tracy in his video Talent and People in Key Positions where as per usual he says some interesting and insightful things, but then states the old adage "Hire, slow, fire fast" and then goes on to reference Jim Collins’ "get the right people on the bus, get the wrong people off the bus" as if to justify his position. I have a great of respect for these men, but I have to admit I was rankled and genuinely angry when I saw the headline in Tracy’s email and then watched the video. As a world renowned expert and author of 70 books people have a great deal of respect for his advice and teachings. That makes his comments all the more disturbing — people will think it is okay. It is not.

Mr. Tracy, with all due respect you are wrong. Good leaders DO NOT hire slow and fire fast. They hire slow and they fire slow. People that are under performing deserve a chance to be told those standards, how they are failing, and be given the genuine chance and the proper resources to be successful. Even in lean start-ups where all stars and top performers only are required.

Before I continue this rant, I do want to be clear that we are not talking about those who lied on their resume, misrepresented their experiences or capabilities, or once hired did things that are illegal or unethical — those people need to go. But, if you truly have a "hire slow" process and a method of evaluating job candidates then the person should not be "fired fast" just because you made a hiring mistake or there are flaws in your operations.

Others may say that they never saw someone turn around and step up. That too is wrong and simply serves as a justification for the quick action narrative. Leadership works, coaching works, giving people the right training and tools works. Yes, some will not step up, others will try and still fail. But for those that do have the potential - you owe them that chance. I personally coached someone I thought had one foot out the door - ten years later she was an SVP for that company.

Fire fast is just lazy, plain and simple. It is the sign of an incompetent and uncaring leader. Last point and I will move onto some methods I think are better. I am not talking about dragging out a process either. When I do leadership workshops I often say when discussing firings folks that most of the time people struggle with "What will others on the team think?" I say I know what they think "What took you so long?" because they generally see the lackluster performance and failures long before you did and the burden fell on them to pick up the slack.

So, perhaps this cool little phrase came into being to address those leaders and managers without the courage to enforce standards and notify people they are not working out. But there is a happy medium and an easy and fair process that demonstrates empathy AND decisiveness.

My definition of slow is 90 days, just 3 months. By the way, others on the team will see that you enforce standards, call out poor performance, but also have a heart and give people a fair chance. You will be seen as a stronger leader not a weaker one. 3 months is a blink of an eye in the business world — even in small and Venture backed start ups. If one person allowed to stay on the team for 90 days will break the bank then either your culture, your operations, or your business model is broken. Maybe if you called Mr. Tracy or others they would agree that 90 days is their definition of "fast".

So, here is what I think should be done...

In terms of "hire slow" I suggest a 360 with full voting rights. This means that anyone who is going to be hired has to be interviewed by numerous cross-department leaders. In a startup - ALL the managers. Here is the catch — only people with 100% support get an offer. Any no vote is a no. I learned that from Nick Hanny at Dynamic Logic and have used it ever since. It has prevented me from many bad decisions. Be patient, the right hire is out there.

Okay, maybe you still got it what...

Once performance issues are identified — that is the time to act fast. Nip it in the bud if possible. Have the courage to enforce standards and have accountability. That is really the heart of the problem — people let performance problems linger and don’t have the courage to confront employees about problems. But don’t make your lack of courage their problem. You are better than that and you owe them a chance.

Second, be honest with yourself. Did you do your job as a leader? Did you set the right SMART goals? Did you communicate those goals and the standards? Did you give them the training and resource needed to be successful?

Next, coaching. According to Academy Leadership, "Coaching is the process of equipping people with the tools, knowledge and opportunities they need to develop themselves and become more successful." Here what I think is fair:

  1. Sit them down and explain in detail where they are falling short. Explain the gap in expectations between their performance and the standards. Have concrete and specific examples — I like three. One could be an outlier, two perhaps unique, but three is definitely the start of a pattern.
  2. Listen. Hear them out — not for excuses, but perhaps there really are some logical explanations or extenuating circumstances.
  3. Explain the consequences. Not every performance review is a 'get better or get fired' conversation. But the person should know where they stand at the end of the meeting.
  4. Write down a development plan. Call it what you want Performance Improvement Plan (PIP), a 90 day plan, an action plan, employee development plan. But, write it down, get agreement that the goals are SMART and fair and then get it signed. Set follow meetings and reviews.
  5. End the meeting by stating your commitments what you will do to make sure they are successful (coaching, training, resources, flex hours, etc.) The person needs to know that you are as committed as they are should they want to improve and excel.

Fourth, enforce the plan. If they continue to fall short or do not meet the steps, actions or goals set in the plan — then it is time for them to go. You have done right by the company, the person and others on your team.

Perhaps going forward the new catch phrase will be "Hire slow, fire fair."

Turns out I am not alone: 'Hire Slow, Fire Fast' — Possibly The Worst Advice Ever Given via Forbes "When it comes to firing people, why on earth would you ever want to rush that? You hired a person and trained them. They're on your team. You've made an investment in them, with financial and emotional components. Why would you want to rush them out the door?"

Here are a few articles to help you coach your under-performers.

10-Point Checklist For Confronting Poor Performance via Lead Change Group

  1. On a piece of paper, describe the behavior that concerns you, along with specific examples.
  2. List the consequences.
  3. Decide what action you will take.
  4. Determine what resources to offer.
  5. Pick time, place and tone with care.
  6. The conversation needs to be private and without distractions.
  7. Be frank but kind.
  8. Avoid sugar coating.
  9. Draw the employee out. There may be information you need to decide what to do.
  10. Involve the employee in finding a solution.
  11. Describe what happens next.

How to Coach Employees on Improvement in Performance by Marty Brounstein via

I must be a dummy — because their 4 point plan includes the same basic steps I outlined above...

  1. Define the performance problem.
  2. Invite the employee into the discussion.
  3. Collaboratively create the plan for improvement.
  4. Manage by plan and do your follow-ups.

Dealing With Poor Performance: Lack of Ability, or Low Motivation? via MindTools

"Enhancing Ability: There are five main ways to overcome performance problems associated with a lack of ability. Consider using them in this sequence, which starts with the least intrusive:

  1. Resupply.
  2. Retrain.
  3. Refit.
  4. Reassign.
  5. Release"

How to Conduct a Corrective Counseling Session for Bad Performance via Houston Chronicle

So don’t be lazy and fire someone simply because you are not willing to lead, or because you made a bad hiring decision. It will take some extra effort and commitment on your part, but be a good leader and figure out how and why the disconnect took place and see if you can provide some coaching and resources to turn the situation around. That is what good leaders do.

Reprinted with permission.