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Misfit – an ill fitting executive

Having been “raised” in companies with healthy talent planning processes, one can easily take for granted the benefits of having a bench of strong internal candidates and few talent crises. 

Injecting external talent, nevertheless, is an important aspect in maintaining a healthy and vibrant organization. However, the same processes that help prevent a poor internal selection are not as effective in the case of that occasional external hire.  An external hire, unless handled by an experienced professional, is exposed to fewer quality controls to ensure organizational fit. 

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What needs to be avoided?

For example, I have seen time pressures cause the “fast-tracking” of an executive search that ignored warning signs in a high level hire that was ultimately removed.  In other cases, in the name of “confidentiality”, interviewing and selection teams are often kept small, easily enabling any disenchanted executive team member to say “I told you so…”.  These are both huge mistakes one would think should be easily avoided.    

Red light spells danger

Let`s assume you are the CEO or HR VP that selected an external new hire into a high level role and after their first year on the job there are some strong warning signals brewing.  The red lights might simply be performance related, such as the new executive’s inability to hit the sales budget or keep costs in check.  Or things could be more complicated because his/her numbers are good but some other “fit” related issue or other short-term behavioral time-bomb is set to explode at any time. 

Let`s also assume, for arguments sake, that you and HR support have taken all the correct steps to help the person and ensure the situation is not circumstantial (I address these considerations at the end of this article so as not to derail the development of the story line…)

At this point, you have serious doubts about your decision and that one year ago, you introduced a “misfit” to your otherwise high performance team.  Worse yet, if you have these doubts, you can be assured that by now, most of the organization is watching and waiting for you to take action. 

Fight or flight

In my experience, this is when that inkling “fear of mistake” feeling settles with regards to your talent decision which leads to  a “fight or flight” mechanism. At this point, a good leader will confront the poor hiring decision and take action (“fight”) to carefully remove the person and transparently communicate the situation to the organization. More often, however, “misfits” are left in the role and reality is avoided (“flight”) through excuses for lack of performance…or even worse…blaming others for not supporting the new arrival.

Long term risk

The risks of running away from a talent crisis are longer-term, much less visible, but as disastrous as ignoring a cancerous “lump” on your body.  The immeasurable costs are those that go beyond the direct costs of a rehire, temporary lower sales or lost production.  The big ticket cost items of maintaining a “misfit” on your team relate more to loss of: 1) strategic focus, 2) employee engagement, and 3) professional and organizational reputation.

Strategic focus – Executive team misalignment can be fatal to the successful implementation of any strategic plan or initiative. The useful analogy is that of a Formula 1 race car, with which any misalignment, imperfection or malfunction, especially at high speeds, can be disastrous.  

Employee engagement – Negation of a high level talent problem will eventually have a direct impact on staff engagement. Dissatisfaction begins with rumors and distraction, but can quickly result in the departure of your best talent.  A single key talent departure can expose the lack of action and leadership and exacerbate the problem even more.

Professional and organizational reputation – Every action or inaction we take ends up impacting, to some degree, our reputation. Our teams look to us as leaders to make the right decisions. As a Board Director, CEO or C-Suite member, the stakes are higher as our leadership role and accountability are linked to the reputation of the organization we represent.

The unfortunate aspect about these costs are that they are not obvious and therefore the decisions to avoid them are easily ignored, or at best, delayed.  It is similar to the damage inflicted by termites, slowly and quietly eating away at the frame of your home, until the damage is irreversible and requires rebuilding.  In the case at hand, the rebuilding refers to a leadership restructuring that will likely include those accountable for not taking necessary action.

Leaders are human

Interestingly enough, our people are actually very forgiving.  They want leaders that are human and they know humans make mistakes. What they do not forgive is lack of transparency (trust).  The Board of Directors also wants leaders who are transparent and trustworthy, but their measure relates more to financial results.  For the Board, results translate to “speed of course correction”.  Hence, the key is to pay close attention to the warning signs of a potential “misfit” in your organization and take action when warranted.

I have felt that fear more than once in talent choices and I know well the suffering of ignoring a poor decision as well as relief and salvation confronting one quickly. I can assure you the pain of taking swift action is well rewarded by staff and leadership alike.  Fortunately, I made the mistakes early in my career, recovered quickly and learned this lesson. 

The bottom line

Now for the important footnote to a seemingly “cold-blooded” article about “firing” executive talent. First of all, we as hiring managers should hold ourselves 100% accountable for our decisions. In the case of a potential “misfit”, if we are considering the removal of a newcomer we introduced onto our team, we must take the utmost care to ensure we are indeed making the right decision to correct our “error”.  These steps include, for example, a thorough “reality check” of the situation.  Mentoring and coaching are actions that should also be considered which often produce results and allow us to avoid drastic action.  Reassignment can be considered, but is unfortunately less common due to the bottom-line pressures on today’s organizations. As part of the last resort option, we should be conservatively generous with the financial conditions we agree on for the affected executive.  Finally, and most importantly, don’t even think about delegating your duty to lead the delicate conversation that awaits you.

Yes, this is a long story to reinforce the importance of always making the right talent decisions.  But mistakes do happen and if you know you have made a mistake, take action, sleep better at night and dedicate your concerns to the business. 

bret rogers

Bret Rogers* is a Director at Signium Peru (previously TASA Worldwide), a leading Peru-based executive search and leadership consulting firm serving the Peruvian market.  Bret enjoys sharing insights gained from his extremely varied functional and geographical experience in top companies such as NCR, Walt Disney, Dole Foods and SABMiller. 


Bret Rogers, Finance Jobs in Africa

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