• David S Cohen

Who Are The REAL Stars In Your Organization?

Around 12 years ago I wrote an article that takes a look at four different types of performers and their impact on the morale of others. This concept of stars, keepers, deadwood and viruses still resonates today. Why? Because many managers, public or private, unionized or not, would rather take the path of least resistance. Yet when I ask those very managers if they could go back to a time they were individual contributors working with a person labelled deadwood or a virus, what did they say to themselves, and perhaps others they worked with about their manager. After their non-verbal response, I ask them the question, are your people saying the same about you?

As we work with more and more with leaders on differentiating between a solid performer, a high performer and high potential it never ceases to amaze how many senior leaders, still today, identify those who are viruses as their high potential employees and high performers.

The Value Grid (see chart) categorizes people according to their benefit or harm to the organization. It measures employees using two factors: values / behaviours and results.


It’s easy to appreciate your star – they’re the people who demonstrate the right behaviours while achieving superior results.


But what do you do with top performers who exemplify that you don’t want your organization to stand for? It may be tempting to put off termination discussions for those who help your bottom line, however, you should recognize such people are ‘viruses’. By overlooking, condoning or supporting the bad behaviours of your best performers you completely discredit your leadership integrity.

Gary, for example, was the top earner in the regional office of a major brokerage firm. Each year his net sales place him in the “President’s Club” despite his abusiveness to support staff, especially women.

Because of his star status, Gary was allowed to get away with nonsense for years until a new vice president of HR decided it had to stop. After a fresh incident, the VP went to the president to describe Gary’s behaviour, the history of ineffective reprimands against hi, and the impact it was having on others (turnover and copycats). The president called Gary to tell him his job was on the line if he didn’t shape up.

Gary figured the message, as usual, was all for show. A month later he threatened an order takers’ job for A month later he threatened an order take’s job for failing to do what he asked. The president called Gary to let him know security would be escorting him from the building immediately.

Does that seem like a tough decision, particularly in bad economic times? Not really. After Gary left, Steve was given Gary’s accounts. Steve had high potential and fit the values of the company but had yet to prove himself. Within six months, Steve increased the book of business by 12 per cent.

How did he do it? It turned out that many of Gary’s clients were wealthy household investors who happened to he women. Although they liked the returns Gary earned and didn’t want to leave him, they didn’t reinvest those profits in the organization. Then Steve came along – someone they liked and trusted more. By beating Gary’s numbers while exhibiting key organizational values, Steve proved himself a real star.


Deadwood are those employees who don’t exhibit the right behaviours. The decision to get rid of those individuals should be a no brainer, right? Unfortunately organizations find it easy to let their deadwood continue to float down the river – though they pay a steep price for doing so.

A national union representative told me that deadwood are a big headache for their colleagues because they don/t do their jobs well and are a frequent source of friction among their ranks. Yet management appraises them better than they should in order to avoid the hassle of a potential grievance.

A triple whammy thus occurs: productivity gets reduced, deadwood stay in place, and quality decays as other employees are demotivated by the passing appraisals they receive.

But isn’t it your mission as a union to protect jobs even when it comes to the deadwood, I asked? We’d go through the grievance process she said‚ ”but wouldn’t put up a big fight. We just wish that management would have the courage to step up to the plate and lead on this issue”.

In many focus groups and conversations I have facilitated, management’s failure to respond quickly and consistently to value conflicts ranks as one of the most significant problems in employee’s eyes. So what should management do with those employees who live the values but fail to produce key results?

For me, this is the only tough question. “Keepers’ are often the beating heart of an organization’s culture. They know the stories, provide a social network and organize the bowling tournaments. Yet they often surface as problems somewhere down the line.

Maybe it’s because they get over promoted beyond their capabilities; or maybe we fail to provide them enough support along the way because development opportunities are always forced on the extremes. They might simply need to be reassigned to a role that matches their skills and knowledge capabilities.

In hard times, looking at productivity numbers, keepers can be easy to let go - but be careful what that does to your culture and morale. After terminating the employment of a 20-year keeper, one executive expressed his remorse over the loss in organizational credibility: “Firing him was like firing Bambi”.

In the end analysis‚ what was the cost and benefit? Skills and knowledge can be developed; but it’s always difficult to find individuals with the right values.

A postscript:

I find it interesting to note that when this was originally written the issue was just that many leaders lost a certain amount of credibility with their staff. Today the issue of keeping Viruses and Deadwood has become more serious as Gen Y will not tolerate working for too long in organizations that leaders don’t take action on their values. So the behaviour of not having brutally honest performance reviews has become a greater issue today.

#Values #Culture #StrategicHR #PerformanceDevelopment #BehaviouralCompetencies #EmployeeEngagement

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