Jerk Is To The Bone

The Welches

In a recent article in BusinessWeek magazine, Jack and Suzy Welch advocated active pruning of the jerks from your organization. They said “nothing hurts a company more than when the bosses ignore, indulge, or otherwise tolerate a jerk.”

They go on to compare employees on two scales, performance and values. They talk about nurturing the good performance, good values players, and getting rid of the bad performance, bad values ones. These are the obvious choices. The third type is someone who is not up to par on performance, but deeply understands and honors the organization’s values. Both the Welches and I feel that these people can be taught to improve their performance.

The fourth type is the star performer who doesn’t share the values. They put it like this:

You know the type–who doesn’t? They exist at every level in almost every organization. These high performers can be mean, secretive, or arrogant. Very often they kiss up and kick down. Some are stone-cold loners, while others are moody, keeping those around them in a kind of terrorized thrall.

Jack unabashedly counsels you to get rid of these people. He even recommends that you make it a public hanging, making sure everyone knows why the person was canned, so they can learn from the experience.

Although I don’t always agree with him, I deeply respect Jack Welch. I’ve had the privilege of a special conversation with him, Warren Buffet, and Bill Gates (more on that wonderful story another time). Jack meets many of my fundamental criteria for a great leader. He is direct, well-spoken, and looks for the simple solutions. Sure, he has made mistakes. Like the silly infatuation with Six Sigma or that business about charging GE for his private jet time after he left. But the man took a lumbering behemoth of a company and turned it into one of the real stars of the last 20 years. That’s good work, and he deserves credit.

Jerks just need to be expunged, even if they are the best performers.

In this case, Jack is absolutely right on target. As former head of HR at Microsoft, I have had to deal with my share of superstar jerks to be sure. And I have seen first hand the deep, insidious effect these people have in other organizations as well. I even watched a whole shop floor give a standing ovation as a jerk was finally escorted to clean out his toolbox. Jerks just need to be expunged, even if they are the best performers. The organization needs to know that company values are more important than performance. [Side note: Joel Spolsky of Joel on Software has an interesting take on values over performance in his post here]

Even though I read this article by the Welches a few weeks ago and thought it was right on, what brought it to my attention was a letter to the editor in the December 4th edition of the magazine. In his letter, Rabbi Richard Davis argues that “firing inappropriate workers when they are top producers is not smart, and it may even be counterproductive.” He goes on to say:

The cycle of firing, hiring, orientation, and training as a policy is risky and expensive. New hires are the devils we don’t know. Difficult yet valuable managers can often be brought along with less expense and with significant return on investment. Professional coaching designed to focus on the developmental tasks of executive growth, with a commitment to align with corporate values, has been shown to produce effective, lasting change.

With all due respect to the Rabbi, and with the important note that I’m also an executive coach, he is trivializing the problem. It is too easy to underestimate the damage that jerks do to the organization. And making a leopard (a true jerk) change its spots (long lived habits) is exceedingly difficult. Harder than training a new person. Simply put: jerk is to the bone. I am a firm believer in drawing another card from the deck rather than suffering with a hand that has lots of problems. That next card could be an ace.

But, a key factor here is an environment that gets new people up to speed promptly. You need to be confident that you have the systems in place to train and develop the newcomers in a way that is not “risky and expensive”. You need this not only to backfill for the jerks you shot, but also for the health of the company in the first place.

The key to Jack’s low tolerance for jerks is his confidence that he could draw another card from the deck and be happy with the result

Under Jack, GE had exceptional talent development systems — just look at all the CEOs they produced. I also had the privilege of spending a day with their head of HR, to study their amazing development systems. I’ll relate that fascinating visit some other time as well. But the key to Jack’s low tolerance for jerks, and his belief in turning out the bottom 10% of employees as well, is his confidence that he could draw another card from the deck and be happy with the result. His systems could identify the jacks and turn them into aces, and also quickly tell the twos and threes from the rest.

None of this is to say that I don’t think people never change. I have seen true jerks mellow over time — lots of time. I just don’t think you or your organization needs to wait them out. And maybe, just maybe, your canning the jerk will be just the kind of cold water in the face they need to start turning around. On someone else’s dime.