How to Deal with the Non-Performers in your Startup

31st May 2012
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Every company, whether big or small, has to deal with non-performers. Taking hard decisions is difficult, more so for a startup as a startup team is small and close-knit like a family. You meet each other everyday, sit on adjacent work stations and share highs and lows, trials and tribulations just the way you share the highlights of the day with your family after you're back home from work.


It is thus painful to see a few poor performers out of the high performing pack despite the constant motivation and feedback. The only thing that you, as an entrepreneur can do, is offer really sound advice and point out his or her improvement areas. It is then up to the individual to accept or not accept the feedback or advice and work on it. One can never impose his/ her opinions or decisions on anybody. As they say, you can take the horse to the water but cannot force him to drink.

Any leader's sole aim must never be to make a team which only works for the benefit of achieving the set goal. Leaders must aim to transform and build lives. Real leaders want to make an impact by building a great team, building business, changing lives in and around. There is no greater pleasure in life than making a performer out of a non-performer. As they say, great leaders make ordinary people do extra ordinary things.

Having said that, there are times when you have take harsh decisions. Not taking them at the right time will most likely harm your company and can be very fatal. When I am encountered with such a situation, I have tried to take the decisions based on some basic values which cannot be compromised at any cost. These are the five core values which have been my bible in good and bad times:

Integrity

This is, no doubt, the first and most important value. There should be zero tolerance for a lack integrity. I say this because it is difficult to change the attitude of such individuals as it is so wired in them that no matter how many times they will apologize or regret their action, sooner or later if given a chance, they will repeat it at some point of time. As an entrepreneur, if there is an integrity issue with anyone in the company, however important or critical that person is for the business, he/ she should be shown the door that day itself. Please edit your employee contracts which will allow you to separate such employees instantaneously.

Whiners

In any team, there will be a set of people who will continuously complain – about work, hygiene, environment, clients, etc. The complaining may never be public, but they will be on a look out to find like-minded individuals and spend most of their time during lunch, at coffee breaks, outside office or in parties whining and being cynical about the company. The one common denominator is that 9 times out of 10, they will all be non-performers. They are like weeds which spread and try to reach out to all the branches that they can, suck the energy and eventually destroy them. It is only the tallest branches to which they don’t dare to reach. These weeds have to be uprooted with utmost urgency.

A company is much better off and a happier place to work at without whiners.

Commitment

In a startup, you need people who stand by their commitments. If one says that he/she is going to deliver something on a particular date with agreed requirements there are no two ways to it. It has to be delivered. At times, especially in software, the delivery date may just be wrongly estimated, or one may get stuck in some difficult problem - whatever the reason is, the best solution is to be upfront, honest and pro-active so that a corrective action can be taken. In a services company, the client has to be notified in advance and in a product company, the same should be done with investors, customers and other stake holders

Discipline

Discipline doesn’t only mean coming in to work and going home at the defined office timings. Discipline means that you exercise self-restraint and self-control in order to complete the task assigned to you. Let me illustrate the impact of indiscipline by sharing what happened in my company. I have always believed in flexible timings and working from home, if need be. Flexible timings or working from home means that people are assigned tasks or pick up tasks themselves and commit to a delivery date; they not monitored on when and where they are working from. Not all tasks can be completed in isolation, however. There are dependencies and one needs to discuss, brainstorm, monitor, share status and plan together with others. Thus, an overlap becomes critical. At our company, we decided that this overlap period would be between 11 am and 5 pm when everyone would be needed to be present in the office together. For the balance time, the team could work whenever and wherever they wanted to. Again, ofcourse, if there is a customer meeting or delivery, the team would have to be in office even if it is early in the morning. Once this communication was shared, in just a few weeks’ time, it was observed that the non-performers started misusing this guideline – They came to work between 12-1pm and left between 4-5pm. In between, they had lunch for an hour, followed by a post lunch walk for more than half an hour. Another hour was spent on the phone, facebook, chat, checking personal mails etc. Effectively, this group was putting in only 2-3 hours of real work! Productivity dropped to abysmal levels and deadlines were missed. The performers ofcourse continued to work either at office or home for 10-12 hours a day, sometimes even more. The products that have been launched would never have seen the light of the day, had it not been for the relentless effort by the performers. They never calculated the no. of hours at work or the no. of pending holidays. I never asked them when they went on vacations; in fact, sometimes, I had to force them to take vacations.

There are no easy answers. You just have to find a balance where you don’t impose rules for those who don’t require to be given rules, and correct those who abuse facilities, rules and responsibility. Coming and leaving at a particular time everyday and just sitting in the office is not discipline, but delivering what has been mutually accepted, being there when the company or customer needs you and acting responsibly is discipline. Contributing as much as possible to the success of the company is discipline.

A piece of advice - Hire people who are self-motivated, self- disciplined, low maintenance and need minimum policing.

Team Spirit

Impossible goals are achieved when you have a great team. In an orchestra playing symphony, even if one group goes off tune, it impacts the outcome. Together, they create magic! Having said that, you might sometimes encounter some people who prefer working as individual contributors. Assign them work which they can perform alone, spend special time with them so that they feel part of the team. Maybe they just like working alone. But the ones who neither perform well and are not team players don't deserve to be part of the team.

Misalignment of vision - Both ways

When you a see a boat with multiple rowers, if even one rower is not in sync or is rowing slowly or too fast or in a different direction, they will collide and the boat will tumble. Similarly, in a company, all team members need to work in tandem for that one common goal and vision. Any mismatch would only just collapse the team.

There is another great story which I always share with my team and when other companies invite me to talk about motivation.

Everyday, while walking back home, one man always sees three people breaking stones with big heavy hammers.

For some reason all three seemed to be different. When his curiosity got the better of him, he asked one of them, "Why are you breaking stones?" The 1st stone breaker replied, "Stone breaking is what earns me my living. This is the only thing I know. If I dont break stones how will I feed my family? The money which I earn provides me shelter and other basic needs." The man then asked the same question to the 2nd stone breaker. He replied ,“I do this to exercise. I have got a day job and it is my hobby to build my body and keep it fit. Stone breaking is the most effective way of exercise." The man then moves to the 3rd stone breaker and asks him the same question. The 3rd stone breaker replies, “I am building a temple."

All three stone breakers were breaking stones to make stone bricks for a temple which was getting constructed. But one of them was aligned with the vision of building a temple. He knew the big picture and believed that he was participating in creating something larger than life. He was proud of his job. And although his participation in this whole act might be a few bricks, he saw himself building a temple.

Believe me, however idealistic you may find this story to be, you will see similar feelings in performers.

All the above points have helped me gauge who can be and should be part of the start-up vision. In bigger companies, atleast 30% of the people don’t perform at all, but they have the capacity to cushion that. For start-ups, even one such employee can be detrimental to the success of the organization.

Take your call, make a plan for those who can improve and give them a fair chance. But the ones who have defaulted on integrity or are habitual whiners, do not bat an eyelid for them. Act before it is too late.

About the Author

Sidhhartha Chandurkar is the founder of ShepHertz Technologies. ShepHertz Technologies, founded in 2010, is a technology startup focusing on product development and services in the area of PaaS (Platform as a Service), Cloud Computing and SaaS (Software as a Service). 

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