I was speaking with a CEO recently and he proudly claimed that he had hired a new divisional head, who was not only a “proven high performer” with a competitor, but had also committed that he would bring his entire team over with him to kick-start the turnaround of this underperforming division. The CEO, of course, had given him carte blanche for this, as any self-respecting CEO who believed in delegation would.
The CEO was very pleased. Instead of hiring people for key positions individually (and personally), he would be able to get a new divisional leadership in place by hiring just one person.
This is a commonplace occurrence in many organizations all over the world and increasingly so in India too as companies battle a crippling shortage of management talent. A quick survey will show that in many teams, people have brought in talent from their previous employers so that they can recreate the “fun” and “high performance” culture that they had when they were all working together. This premise has two fallacies at its foundation—that a new “high performance team” can be created by poaching a group, and that a “high performing culture” from an earlier organization can be recreated just by transplanting the people.
Once this subculture gets created, it gives birth to serious organizational issues:
Malay Karmakar / Mint
• Mutual interdependence and underperformance: Since the team members know each other very well, there is a complacency towards performance to start with, as a person need not “prove oneself” to the boss all over again. This can lead to various ills such as groupism, sweeping under the carpet underperformance, protectionism and politicization of the organization.
• Culture of exclusion for each person: The people who are apolitical in nature and do not believe in belonging to a clique tend to get left out as they avoid this groupism, even when invited. One such non-aligned professional told me that a divisional head told her, upon joining the company, that he was ultimately going to make it to CEO and wanted her to be a part of his team, as he believed in taking “his people” up with him. She politely declined (more by actions than words), not knowing what “being part of his team meant”—and, sure enough, was sidelined from the “promotion sweepstakes”. And yes, he did make it to CEO.
• Opacity in performance management standards: Even if not deliberately done, a certain opacity develops in performance management standards since people assume that they know each other so well. Formal reporting and documenting of issues, concerns, poor performance, rationale for decisions taken, among other issues, get sidelined. The flip side of this is that even if decisions are made on sound merit and solid performance, the perception of the decision as being biased just does not go away.
Not to be misunderstood—there are some positive fallouts of this also. Whenever a new team is created, it undergoes a process (classical team dynamics literature calls it forming, storming, norming and then finally performing), which is time-consuming. A ready-made team, transplanted from an earlier set-up, does not need to undergo this and can technically start performing from day 1. However, the cons are too many and far outweigh the pros to justify this practice.
So, is this just a keen observation of team behaviour, which one should find an interesting read and then ignore, or does it have a more fundamental and negative fallout on organizations? The issue is actually pretty sinister and insidious and calls for certain actions:
•Acknowledge the problem: Most companies either deny having this as an issue or are unaware of it. The full impact of this can be assessed only by conducting an independent audit or survey (not an internal one done by HR) as to whether this is a vital issue and whether there is an impact on employee morale or not.
• ‘Gangbusting’ interventions: A few HR interventions, such as job rotation or more effectively rotating the performance manager, can be very useful in controlling this. The key intervention is to have a “review of reviewers” process that actually works.
• People process:Just like most organizations have a process for strategy and operations, they also need to have a robust people process. A strong process for identification of people skills needed, linked to strategic requirements, a frank and independent appraisal of whether a candidate has those skills or not, and then an open process for review of performance and identification of remedial steps, is what will eliminate this problem.
The best news, of course, is that this has to be driven by the CEO personally. The core cause of this problem is that the people process is opaque and currently driven only by operational heads, or, worse still, by HR alone!
This is an attempt to bring to the surface an HR issue that really gets swept under the deepest carpets in an organization. However, the issue is already serious enough in India to deserve a top agenda item place on the high table of management committees.
Incidentally, it is also a well-recognized fact that most teams that come in together also go out together, only after becoming fatter!