How to Turn a Problem into a Prize


The difference between a true leader and a misfit manager is this.  The former knows how to take a troubled producer and coach them up or out; nothing in between. The latter fears this confrontation and either lets the pseudo performer coast; or, if challenged in their leadership, they may quickly show the struggling employee the door.

Good leaders are good leaders because they can take talented but problem employees and quite often coach the employee to success.  The little “up or out” box on the four box grid is the bottom right.  This is the employee’s who has got potential but either has to attitudinally change, or leave.  Sometimes leave is the only option, and good leaders recognize when this sadly is the case.  Good leaders, however, more often than not can work to turn the ship around.  There are a few key steps I’ve seen that can lead to this success.

Speak the truth. Not too long ago I had a very, very tough phone conversation with my child’s basketball coach.  It went something like this.  “Ms. Desiderio, your son is not very social.  He’s not very athletic.  But he really has a big heart and I see leadership potential in him.”  My mind was so fixated on the first two statements that I didn’t linger very long on the latter until later in the conversation.  I didn’t know whether to hang up at the rude introduction the first two statements presented, or to stay on the phone and listen.  I chose to stay on.  After some time on the phone I decided that this coach was just the thing my son needed.  Fast forward a few weeks past that dialogue and this man is my son’s favorite coach. He’s also the toughest coach my son has ever had.  But still the favorite, and the best.  I believe that my son is in a place where he’s going to grow.  I believe my son’s weak points will be refined and improve, and his strengths nurtured and grown. What the coach did was be blunt with me about what he saw as the challenge.  But then he was very detailed and encouraging about what he saw as the potential, and the solutions.  He continued into the areas I mention below.  But it began with one critical ingredient in the coaching formula.  Truth.

It’s no different in the workplace. We need to be just as frank with our employees.  We can’t sit around and pretend the rainbow colored elephant doing cartwheels on our desk isn’t there.  It is.  Whether it’s hearing, “Cari, you talk over me and need to stop doing that.” Or, “Cari, you need to slow down and think things through more.” Or any other insult to my pride that a good coach told me.  They all stuck.  They all changed me. They all challenged me to step up and conquer my weaknesses.

Show them the way. If you stop at the above you leave a hurt puppy to sulk in the corner and, probably, fail.  You can’t just toss insults out there to dangle and walk away thinking this may invoke change.  No way.  Good leaders only introduce truth when it is followed next by offering up guidance and the right path.  I can think of various times I’ve sat with managers who had employees failing to perform.  We didn’t just say – start performing!  Rather, we said, you need to follow work instructions, partner with a person a step ahead, attend training, start showing up on time to get back proper attendance patterns, and so forth.  There was a formula.  There was a suggested path of rectifying the shortfall. This is showing the employee the way.

Have frequent touch points and hold them accountable. Taking things a step further, a good leader (who is in fact a good coach) needs follow up to insure follow through.  I’ve seen way too many managers let fear of confrontation and also just sheer laziness in follow-up create an environment that invites and nearly guarantee the employee’s failure.  If your employee is on a learning and behavior path to improvement, set targets, meet weekly, check how they are doing and hold them accountable.  Don’t expect change if communication and real management like this is not happening.

Care. This is probably the most critical part of the formula if you want to really see the drive from problem employee to prize employee happen. This is the secret sauce that gets intensive engagement.  The reason why my son has grown so fond of his coach is really simple.  He knows the coach is tough, super tough.  He knows the coach is going to work him hard and it won’t always be fun.  But, in my son’s own words, this coach really cares more than the other coaches.  Not that the other’s don’t care.  But this guy is special.  He’s led his teams to win state and compete nationally year after year.  He’s got alumni that come back to visit decades later.  He has bonds with the very boys he grilled out there on the court.  And, it’s the same for us as leaders.  If we lead with heart and really, truly, care, we can inspire greatness in others.  When a person feels cared for, a spark inside ignites.  This is the secret sauce of engagement and performance. Plain, simple, old fashioned interest and compassion for the hard working employees on our team.

So, step up and lead.

Then, step out of the way and let them shine!

“A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.” — John C. Maxwell