Making the Tough Call with Poor-Fit Talent – Winning Actions, Not Costly Traps

Worried woman_crop “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”        – Maya Angelou

The realization may come over time, or it can occur as the result of a single critical incident. You have a poor-fit player in a key management or project position.

Consider the many ways poor-fit talent can make their presence known. For example:

• Under-performance due to skill deficits
• Inability or unwillingness to act on performance feedback
• Counterproductive – or toxic – personality traits
• Lack of alignment with the organization’s core strategy or culture
• Increased interpersonal or departmental conflict


Over the years I’ve noted the most common – and costly – traps that executives and board directors make in dealing with a poor-fit professional. Are any of the following familiar to you?

1. Avoidance. Denial is an all-too-human reaction to having to face the fact your wonderful hire has become a major disappointment. However, if after one specific and supportive corrective action discussion, you do not see substantial improvement in the person, ACT! Just as a toothache progresses from intermittent to constant pain, so too does avoidance result in a far more painful and costly “extraction” the longer you wait.

2. Appeasement. Rather than confront the poor-fit person and move to transitioning said person out of the organization, you give the person even more resources and time. You do this despite the fact you know the person’s promises to improve are empty or the situation is no longer salvageable. Is this approach irrational? Yes. Is it common? Yes.

3. Fudging the Facts. You inflate the poor-fit person’s performance review in the hope that your glowing appraisal motivates better performance in the future. This is pure wishful thinking. It is also misleading and creates an inaccurate personnel record. Your fudging of the facts is more likely to solidify the problematic status quo. Plus your lack of candor early on can make it harder to be frank with the person later on. You are on a slippery slope, and one that can make eventual separation of the person more complicated.


The higher in the organization the poor-fit person sits, the greater the risks and consequences of inaction. The challenge is not to get stuck with performance-sapping excuses and rationalizations.

Excuse: “He just needs more time.”

Action Point: Face the facts once you have the facts. Recognize when you have a poor-fit professional and initiate a conversation with the person about these facts. You might even be surprised to learn that he feels the same way and welcomes a graceful exit.

Excuse: “I don’t know how to tackle this problem and am afraid of making matters worse.”

Action Point: Consult with your human capital manager and/or legal counsel sooner rather than later.

Excuse: “We don’t have anyone to replace her.”

Action Point: Start looking for a replacement as soon as you have enough data to confirm a poor-fit situation.  Consider the option of making an interim appointment while you work toward a permanent replacement.

Excuse: “I’ll look like an idiot since I recommended him in the first place.”

Action Point: Have a strong talk with your ego. Recognize that all external hires – and some internal promotions – involve an element of risk. Your leadership effectiveness increases significantly when you are able to make the tough call when circumstances so require.

Excuse: “It will cost us too much money to buy her out.”

Action Point: Calculate the Costs of Inaction. These include non-renewable executive time spent on firefighting and conflict resolution, reputation risk, sub-par project execution, unwanted flight of other top talent, possible stakeholder litigation and missed business opportunities.

In closing, I urge you to take Maya Angelou’s observation to heart: When you see what a person is really made of, believe them the first time. Respond promptly and progressively to poor-fit talent situations. Make the tough call. You will be more effective and have less stress at the office. And overall organization and team productivity will increase.

Now that’s brilliant execution!

Copyright ©Susan Battley. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Susan Battley

An advisor to Fortune 100 executives and world-class institutions for more than twenty years, Dr. Susan Battley is an internationally recognized expert on CEO and leadership effectiveness. Her clients include Fortune 500 companies, professional service firms, and elite research institutions. She has worked with chief executives, university presidents, Nobel laureates, and prominent scientists, diplomats, and educators. A respected media source for analyzing leadership in the context of news-breaking events and key trends, Battley has been featured in outlets worldwide including CNN, CNBC, Fox, Bloomberg, and National Public Radio, and in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Chief Executive, Business Week, United Press International, Harvard Management Update, Entrepreneur, Science, Leader to Leader, Investments, and Worth. She is the founder and CEO of Battley Performance Consulting, a leadership strategy and organization effectiveness consultancy.