You can't build a great company by tolerating mediocre leaders
"It's better to have a terrible manager than a good-enough one," says Raad Al-Saady, managing director for more than 7,000 employees at Abdul Latif Jameel, one of the biggest companies in the Middle East. "Leaders are very quick to make decisions on bad or ineffective leaders."
The difference between a great company and an average company is how it deals with barely sufficient managers.
But managers who are just good enough, he says, seem to linger forever. They linger because they don't do anything really wrong -- but they don't do anything really right either. That leads to mediocrity, which Al-Saady calls a slow poison. In the following conversation, Al-Saady shares how to detect the poison and teach, move, or lose good-enough managers before the damage of mediocrity spreads.
Gallup Business Journal: What's so bad about good-enough managers?
Raad Al-Saady: The difference between a great company and an average company is how it deals with barely sufficient managers. If you continue to infect your organization with people who don't drive excellence, you drag your company down.
Mediocrity kills companies. Organizations are quick to take action on bad leaders or ineffective leaders. Those, you can spot. But what stops a company from moving into greatness are all of the mediocre layers. People sort of accept that companies will have some great leaders and some average leaders -- and that, as a starting point, is deadly. No company wants to be mediocre. I don't think that people wake up every morning and aim for mediocrity; they fall into it.
How do you determine who's a poisonously adequate manager?
Al-Saady: At ALJ, we base it on two factors: performance and potential. We use Gallup's Executive Leadership Interview and some other tools to assess potential. But the biggest difference between a great leader and an average leader is that great leaders are engaged, and they can lead an engaged team to optimum results.
Average leaders generally have mediocre engagement and don't have much sense of ownership of their organization. Their team is not motivated, and they tend to deliver whole periods of not terrible but not great results. They basically keep going, not pushing boundaries and not raising the bar. They don't get obsessed with improving results and performance and creating an atmosphere where people can perform at their best. But they don't get much attention because they're not messing up.
When you identify a good-enough manager, what do you do?
Al-Saady: Make sure there's a real leadership problem there. We use a clear set of performance criteria and objectives to measure leaders' performance and potential. We measure the engagement levels of their teams, their 360-degree feedback scores, and many other things and then categorize leaders on a potential/performance axis.
With high performance/low potential people, you make sure they're in roles that get the most out of them while continuing to recognize their contribution. The high potential/low performance managers are your future gems, and you need to know why they are not delivering today. See if it's a fit issue or a mentoring issue or an engagement issue. Whatever it is, that manager's leader needs to start working on it.
But the tricky ones are the low performance/low potential folks. Even if you want to be benevolent or avoid rocking the boat and keep them in their current management role, their teams and your company will continue to underperform. You want to give these folks roles they can shine in, maybe on another team or in an individual contributor role. And you should mentor, coach, and train them to greatness there. I've known a lot of good-enough managers who became fantastic individual contributors. You should give them that chance. But then you must monitor their results closely. If they're not going to hack it, the next time you make changes, maybe they can be part of a different organization. Have exit strategies.
Isn't it more common to move good managers to some other team?
Al-Saady: We believe that if someone is not performing to our expectations, our customers' expectations, and our employees' expectations, we have a duty not to keep that leader in that place. Leaders like that damage themselves, their teams, and our organization.
You have a duty to find and keep great leaders -- not only to produce results but also because they coach and mentor the next group of leaders. When people get promoted to their level of incompetence, they end up managing a group of people who are more talented than they are. Then they start playing politics because they're insecure about the people below them. Negative incentive stuff also happens as a result; you start dumbing down your incentive scheme to make it more "egalitarian." That's how, slowly but surely, mediocrity starts to eat up the culture of excellence. As those people multiply inside your organization, they pull the organization back.
But there are only so many people who have the talent to be a great manager. How do you stock the management ranks when the resource is scarce?
Al-Saady: That's a fair question. First, decide how quickly you want to do this. You don't have to do it all in one day. This approach has to be pragmatic as well. But if you don't start the process because you don't think you can, then you're defeated from day one. You'll find that as the quality of your leadership improves, it becomes easier to recruit more great leaders and to retain high-caliber leaders in your organization.
One of the items on Gallup's Q12 employee engagement survey is "My associates or fellow employees are committed to doing quality work." That is a very important item. I watch that one closely. When people believe everyone is committed to quality, you recruit higher quality workers in every category.
I take all [the Q12 items] seriously. But that item can change everything very quickly. If your company is the enemy of mediocrity, it becomes an organization that ambitious, high-caliber people want to be part of. Recruiting becomes much more effective, and then you really get quality work. That begets more success because as you get higher quality applicants, people within the company start upping their game. Then you're on a roll.
But it all starts with assessing people properly. Then you motivate and engage them, mentor and coach them toward success. Not all of them will be great leaders, and the ones who aren't shouldn't be put in that kind of position. If you only put great leaders in leadership positions, you'll root out mediocrity before it can spread.
-- Interviewed by Jennifer Robison