Entrepreneurs: Time to Fire Your Staff

by / ⠀Startup Advice / October 21, 2011

There is little denying that Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, is a genius.  He created a site that not only attracts more traffic than any other on the web, but also influences behavior, business, and social norms at an unprecedented level. He is a brilliant software developer. He can sit down and build something that most of us could never even imagine existing with lines of code that almost none of us can understand. But for all that brilliance, I wouldn’t give him the task of solving the education crisis in America.  I wouldn’t ask him to do anything that doesn’t relate to his current role. He is not the right fit for the task.  But if Facebook were to commit its resources and energy towards tackling the education crisis, Zuckerberg would almost certainly assume a leadership role in that effort because of his existing role as CEO of Facebook.

Thankfully that is a hypothetical situation.  But it happens all the time – an existing organizational leader is thrust into a position with another group where they are not a good fit.  The person who has been at an organization the longest is seen as the best person to lead because of their depth of understanding and experience.  These people are asked to guide an effort, inspire a team, and help an organization transform itself to meet a new set of challenges and it doesn’t work.  Worse, we find out too late that they weren’t up for the task.

That practice needs to stop.  Some of the biggest efforts to address problems facing our society are being led by organizations that are, inherently, at a disadvantage in terms of management.  Some of the most exciting organizations are filled with people who aren’t suited for the opportunities that are being created.

With a few exceptions, the makeup of non-profit organizations, or those groups who lead with their mission and passion, tends to not be conducive to good management.  But this is not just a challenge in addressing serious issues.  The same leadership and management problems exist across every organization today – no matter the size, focus, or industry in which it operates. The impact that technology and the internet are having on our society is significant.  The new gadgets and channels that are available today don’t just change how we do marketing, or where a product or service might be offered (online vs. offline vs. on through a mobile device).  How we get and share information, and our fundamental behaviors as human beings, are all being disrupted by the influence that technology and the internet are having on our lives and the world around us. How leadership and management are discussed, and how organizations and institutions must operate, needs to change.

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The first and most critical thing to consider when looking to change how an organization operates is the people. As the needs of organizations expand and change, today’s personnel may not be the best fit tomorrow.  The people you have on your staff, many of them who have contributed to the growth, the success and the prominence of your work, are not necessarily the right people for the next stage of work on which your organization is about to embark.  This should be obvious if your organization isn’t fulfilling its mission – whatever that may be.  It is more difficult to assess if you have found success of late, but have that uneasy feeling about what challenges lie ahead.  Either way, now may be a good time to fire your staff.

For all the negative impacts of the economic slowdown that has consumed the nation, and the globe, one certain benefit is the ability for organizations to re-make their staff.  We have seen big companies quickly shed five, ten percent of their workforce because of the economy — the truth is a lot of the people that they’re shedding are people that they had planned on getting rid of but didn’t have an excuse to do so.  This opportunity shouldn’t be limited to staff either. You hear a lot about partnerships being created – between organizations and corporations, between technology providers and groups who are offering access to certain services or experiences to their audiences – but you rarely hear about partnerships being un-made.

What do you do once you fire your staff? You rebuild your team around a core of people, and a system for operating, which will give your organization the ability to address whatever challenges come your way.  The shift begins by thinking differently. In the short term, management becomes the priority, not leadership.  Surround yourself with people and partners whose focus is on execution – getting things done — not on creating more new opportunities.  But don’t forget the big picture.  Figure out how they fit together. The most successful corporations know how to connect the dots; their leaders are able to look ahead at the steps that will need to be explored in the future and how to position their work to day to meet those needs down the line. Successful CEOs are making smart decisions in the moment, while also trying to think about the steps that lie ahead, how to achieve the next victory and the one after that.

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Business leaders understand that balance, in part because they know that companies grow or else they die.  Nonprofit leaders and social entrepreneurs don’t think that way, and they need to learn how.  There are great leaders with big visions and strong faith in their ability to achieve a meaningful, measurable result – but who fail to recognize that change takes time and patience is in short supply.  There are also effective managers who run productive and profitable enterprises, only to find themselves unable to pivot when an unanticipated challenge is presented because they don’t have a long-term vision to use as a measuring stick for their efforts.  Too many organizations working to address serious issues fall into one of those traps – and sometimes both. They operate a system that only rewards the short-term gains, like dollars raised or press attention generated, at the expense of long-term impact they are committed to achieving.  Others have such passion for their cause they don’t realize the need to deliver small victories in order to achieve more significant impact, and increasingly are finding their base of support eroding and their influence waning. Look around, you’ll notice that these failed systems allow mediocre staff to remain and bad partnerships to flourish.  That needs to change or nothing else will.

There is no simple answer here.  Distributing power and responsibility across your organization requires active, engaged leadership. Radical changes – in culture, among individuals, or across society as a whole – won’t materialize on their own. In Shift & Reset, Michael Slaby, the COO of the Obama campaign, offers this advice to CEOs: “If you don’t teach your people the right values, they won’t do the right things. But if you teach them what you want them to do — and you make sure they feel respected and empowered, but make very clear that the values of hope and faith and trust are critically important to the success of the whole operation — the rest is much easier.”

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To succeed in any capacity in today’s fast-moving, constantly changing world – and more importantly, if we are going to have a shot at addressing the serious issues that challenge our society — organizations are going to need to change their culture and approach to embrace what it means to operate in a connected society.  Expecting your people, or any organization, to change on their own is not likely to yield the desired results.  Organizations just need to change their approach internally. They need to change the way they partner and align with sponsors and investors.  And they need to present themselves and engage with the public differently.  The same old team, functioning in the same existing ways, won’t work. It hasn’t worked for a while.  Start by changing your team and see what happens.

Brian Reich is senior vice president – global editor for Edelman, where he provides editorial vision and strategy for the company. He is well known for his expertise in new media, Web 2.0, social networks, mobile, community, ecommerce, brand marketing, cause branding, and more. Brian is the author of Shift & Reset: Strategies for Addressing Serious Issues in a Connected Society (Wiley, 2011) and co-author of Media Rules!: Mastering Today’s Technology to Connect with and Keep Your Audience (Wiley, 2007). Learn more about Brian at www.shiftandreset.com.

About The Author

Matt Wilson

Matt Wilson is Co-Founder of Under30Experiences, a travel company for young people ages 21-35. He is the original Co-founder of Under30CEO (Acquired 2016). Matt is the Host of the Live Different Podcast and has 50+ Five Star iTunes Ratings on Health, Fitness, Business and Travel. He brings a unique, uncensored approach to his interviews and writing. His work is published on Under30CEO.com, Forbes, Inc. Magazine, Huffington Post, Reuters, and many others. Matt hosts yoga and fitness retreats in his free time and buys all his food from an organic farm in the jungle of Costa Rica where he lives. He is a shareholder of the Green Bay Packers.


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