I have long believed that managers need to always have a “ladder” of their people graded from best to worst performer. This is not just to ensure visibility of the top performers, but also to ensure identification of those that need help. The problem is that most managers find it very easy to work with the people who are doing well, as that generally means easy contact and positive conversations, but find it hard to work with those that are struggling, as that involves some confrontation and considerable effort.

I am not saying that managers should stop having significant focus on their best people, but I am often amazed at how many people don’t actually understand that they are not performing to the expectation of their immediate supervisor until they have their annual performance review at the end of the year, generally too late for remedial actions to be taken.

I believe that the role of a manager is to personally work with whoever is on the bottom rung of the ladder and to focus on helping them to move up. This generally means that the manager will need to expend effort as it involves some coaching, some development and some hand-holding from the manager (and even others) for a while, but this is one of the things that managers are meant to do anyway, even though few actually do so. Once the manager realistically feels that his charge has now moved off the bottom rung, this will then uncover the next person that needs help, and the manager can now shift his focus and efforts to this one. In this way, a manager will develop a team that is continually improving.

Keeping the focus just on the top performers may be easier but doesn’t necessarily achieve much improvement in the team. Moving a hi-performing employee from 100-105% performance is not only harder, but also doesn’t deliver as much benefit to team success as does moving a struggler from say 70-90%. Too many managers leave people sitting on the bottom rung for too long, without remedial action being taken quickly enough and then it becomes too late to do anything to save them.

I have always believed that if you hire people for their strengths then you can’t remove them for their weaknesses until you have made significant effort to help them to overcome these. Only after you have expended this effort jointly, and they are still sitting on the bottom, can you now consider more critical action hence “Move them up or move them out”.

I believe that the same holds true if a manager has a team where all are great performers and are all achieving their goals. There are still significant benefits to be gained by focussing on “moving up” whoever is the least of the hi-performers and keeping the whole process alive.

By “move them out”, I mean initially looking at whether they can be moved out of their current role, and into a role where their strengths can be used to add value to the organisation. If the recruitment process that brought them in to the organisation was well run and stringent, then there is significant chance that they can still be valuable in a different role. Only as a last resort should they be terminated. A “hire ‘em fire ‘em” attitude is too expensive and disruptive to any organisation, and should never be allowed to become a way of compensating for bad management practices.



  1. Frank Liebeskind says:

    Interesting, in an operational group, I prefer to think of people as “stars and star capacilty” and “back room necessities”. Develop the stars and encourage and nurture the back room necessities. A ladder implies promotion, advance, I’ve found many that don’t want to be managers and career climbers, but are equally as valuable because they get on and do an excellent job consistently and as a bonus (to their managers)can be “low maintenance”. So it’s not just move up or out, it is developing a “champion team”; which definitely isn’t the same as a team of champions. I do agree with your statement “they can still be valuable in a different role. Only as a last resort should they be terminated”; to me, that statement is the key to good management. Regards, Frank

    • leshayman says:

      Hi Frank,
      I agree completely … I don’t see the “ladder” analogy as being one used for promotion at all, and not something physical, but use it as a term for ranking the people in his own mind.
      This “ladder” is also something that stays personal to the manager only, and should not be shared with anyone. It is just a way to ensure that the manager does not lose focus on his responsibilities to those that need help.

  2. Dear Les,

    My business is that of cultural change management in organizations and I agree with what you have written here. We have statistics to prove that organizations get their biggest lift in performance when they focus their atttention on moving average performers to good performers vs. focusing their attention on the good performers in an effort to make them even better. The middle rung has the biggest amout of low hanging fruit. Thank you for continuing to write wonderful and inspirational stories for all of us to read.

  3. leshayman says:

    My personal experiences also support this. Some of my most successful people have been those that struggled somewhat initially when they came into an alien culture, but who with some mentoring and handholding started to shine. In many companies, if you are not plugged in to the “old boys network”, it is just to hard to make things happen, and these unofficial networks are hard to crack for newcomers, without a guide.
    The critical thing for managers is to be able to help identify the barriers to success that each individual encounters, as these will differ, and help them to work through them.
    Turning an average performer into a star performer, as well as the obvious benefits, also helps build loyaly and commitment.

  4. Tried to read this on my iPhone & it cut off the end of the sentences. Can’t way to see it on the Mac!

  5. leshayman says:

    Hi Mary,
    Do you think that it was trying to say that I am long-winded ?

  6. Pingback: What I Wish I Knew as a CEO That I Learned Later in HR - Jesse Lyn Stoner

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