Three Ideas for Managing Your Underperforming Sacred Cows


I had a great conversation yesterday with a group of CEO’s who were wrestling with a thorny problem.  Each of them had people on their teams that just weren’t getting the job done, but the CEO’s felt powerless to do anything about it because each employee in their own way was a “sacred cow”.  Some were family members.  Others were long-time employees nearing retirement.  All were valued and popular as people, but none of them had the horsepower to be successful in their respective business roles.

Let’s face it, sometimes there are folks that you simply choose to live with, even though they aren’t great at their job.  That doesn’t mean, though, that you have to just grin and bear it.  Try one or more of these ideas.  They could help you get more out of your beloved bovine, and they might even help you gently nudge them out the door without the nuclear emotional fallout you probably fear.  Either way, you’ll be perceived as a stronger leader and maintain the confidence of the rest of your team.

  1. Be clear on the person’s duties and responsibilities. Great businesses are crystal clear on the jobs that need to be done in their business.  Many sacred cows, however, have fuzzy job descriptions that generate ambiguity and confusion.  The first thing you have to do is think about what you would want if you were going to hire a new person for the seat currently occupied by your cow.  Be clear with yourself – and your challenging employee — on what an effective person would be able to accomplish in the role.  You can then use that as a baseline for your future conversations about performance.
  2. Communicate honestly and consistently about performance gaps. Just because you feel like you can’t fire someone doesn’t mean that you can abdicate responsibility for managing them.  Once you’re clear on what you’d expect from a new hire, use that as the starting point for future conversations with your employee surrounding their own performance gaps.  You can’t consistently beat them over the head with their faults, but you can be clear on the delta between how they perform and what you’d like to see.  Most sacred cows want to be a successful part of the team.  You’ve got to help them understand what that looks like so they can at least do their best.
  3. Be open and honest about your dilemma. Nothing can be more destructive to a leadership team than double standards.  When one person gets special treatment and isn’t held accountable you risk your entire company losing confidence in you as a leader and assuming that underperformance is good enough.  While you obviously don’t want to throw your sacred cow under the bus by criticizing them unnecessarily in front of other leaders, you can help your team understand that you’re trying to manage through a tough problem.  Enlist their help, and do your best to show them that you’re not ignoring the problem —  you’re just dealing with it as best you can given the constraints of the situation.

-Jeff Whittle


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