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Warren Bennis
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Warren Bennis

Warren Bennis is University Professor and Distinguished Professor of Business at the University of Southern California. His newest book is 'Still Surprised: A Memoir of a Life in Leadership.'

Coaching Up Underperformers

This is a very touchy and important question, and the truth is that no organizational or leadership authority knows the answer. Most leaders are not very good at even selecting young people's futures and recognizing their potential for growth, let alone do this for "old-timers."

Research on this topic is sparse and certainly not enough to draw any solid conclusions. But that being said, we do know that experience is important. Think of the 57-year-old pilot who successfully saved almost 160 lives by his careful and subtle maneuvering of his aircraft into the Hudson River. Prior to last week, most aviation experts would have doubted that a rookie pilot was capable of accomplishing such an incredible feat.

Kurt Warner's situation is a very interesting one because he did have a few bad seasons and clearly was "underperforming" before he joined the Cardinals. Not to mention, Coach Whisenhunt is a relatively new coach. Yet he showed confidence in Warner by starting him ahead of the much younger and fabled Heisman Trophy winner, Matt Leinart. He ultimately allowed the losing team to become the winning team-- I believe the Cardinals won three games straight in the playoffs and had a great winning streak in the second half of the season.

In order to predict whether a football player or a senior executive is or isn't a good comeback bet, there are several things we must question and attempt to do:

1. Does the so called "washed-up" person really want a comeback?

2. Is there a support group present that would augment the older person's strengths?

3. Would it be possible to give the "under-performer" a sense of a new start? (In Warner's case, this was getting to a team with a legacy of losing and spark-plugging it back to victory.)

4. Perhaps "trying him out" in another post for awhile would provide some evidence as to the possibilities of a successful comeback.

5. The direct boss, not only the HR people, have to work closely with the "under-performing" person to find out how he feels about his performance, the perceived obstacles in his way, and demonstrate to the person that the company culture is a culture that takes growth and learning seriously.

All of the above are serious commitments on the part of the management, and through working with an aging or "under-performing" person, you might find yourself surprised. Companies that do this well are P&G, GE, Boeing Aircraft, UPS and the military services -- they are excellent at caring for, feeding and encouraging the growth of their employees. Sometimes all of this is worth a try and often better than simply writing the under-performer off.

By Warren Bennis

 |  January 26, 2009; 4:47 PM ET
Category:  Sports Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Yes it is a very touchy subject, one that has been misunderstood by too many in business especially. If you have a group of people whom you have hired to do work, a number of them, a proportion, will in this example, be "under-performing"; others in the population will, of necessity, be "over-performing". In business, I would suggest that most managers don't know such a thing is possible. They don't know what they are doing, primarily because they have no knowledge of systems' interactions.

In sports, this is often taken as a given; we want some to "perform", and when they do we stand up and cheer. They and the team they are on are seen as 'winners', the other team 'losers', and we accept that. But in business, to draw such distinctions is irresponsible; in business we want all our 'team-mates' to interact so as to smoothly get done what needs to in order to prosper. Telling someone you hired that they are "underachievers" tells more about you and your HR practices than it does about the employee, and it is not good.

So, when someone pretends to know that someone else is an "under-achiever", you'd best be sure about just where and how they got that information. More often than not, they have no clue.

Go Cardinals!

Posted by: JerseyGiant | January 28, 2009 4:14 PM
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Kurt Warner is a winner. He always has been and always will be. He has always believed in himself and his faith. He has endured hardships and let down and then extreme success with hardly a rattle to his person. That is the kind of person you always want to go the Super Bowl with leading your team. Without winning his second Super Bowl he already has HOF carrer numbers deserving of induction. Bradey is 31 and still in his prime and not to short his carrer in the least but the true sign of his mettle will be if he can come back from this injury and still put it together and win. KW has hit the skids and bounced back and, in my opinion, is THE reason the Cards are where they are now. He is on a team with a history of poor ownership, historically poor coaches and, historically, a talent level that could not rival a collage team and has shown he can still produce. It one thing to have all the pieces of the puzzle and win but when you have half the pieces and can still win then you are great.

Posted by: blahblahblahblah1 | January 28, 2009 1:23 PM
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Nothing against Kurt Warner, because I do believe he is a very good QB and an even better person, but it seems that he has his best "comebacks" when playing in perfect conditions (indoors at St. Louis or Phoenix) and surrounded by great offensive weapons (Fitzgerald, etc). Even this year, Warner looked mediocre on the road away from the dome. Please don’t get me wrong, I think Kurt is an above average QB and his story is one that should be told to every young person that starts to doubt themselves. But I believe his success this year has far more to do with his offensive cast of characters and far less with Whisenhunt’s leadership skills.

Posted by: jlledo06 | January 28, 2009 5:51 AM
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By the way, what's an 'underperformer'? Somebody who doesn't meet expectations? Well, the expectation of every NFL fan, every year, is a winning season and a playoff berth. In other words, no team gets the luxury of being average. You're either a winner or not. Fans are fanatics -- more passion than sense. They soar with victory and agonize with defeat. When the team wins, the coach and QB are geniuses; when they lose, everybody becomes a moron.

Sounds something like modern corporate management, doesn't it? And Wall Street? A bunch of folks who don't know what they're talking about decide that this or that manager 'should' produce a particular result, based largely on their own selfish gain. If the manager doesn't, then she/he is underperforming. If the manager meets the expectation, it's bonus time -- until next year.

Bernie Madoff was once a paragon of CEO-hood. A big fake. But then, given our recent experience, maybe that's the rule, not the exception.

Posted by: Samson151 | January 28, 2009 2:38 AM
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Call me crazy, but I'm getting the sense that Mr. Bennis isn't a hard-core football fan...

Kurt Warner has been a comeback artist his entire career. This is the guy, remember, who kept himself in shape as a grocery clerk by heaving rolls of toilet tissue to his coworkers. The guy who came from a smaller college through the fledgling Arena League (they played football in a converted hockey rink, for Pete's sake) to the helm of one of the modern era's best offensive teams. When St. Louis dumped him, he struggled in New York with the run-minded Jints before landing in Arizona where he once again got sent to the bench in favor of the rookie QB better suited to the cover of People than SI.

So could you have predicted Warner would have another arrow in the old quiver? Sure. What you couldn't have guessed is that it would be in Arizona -- one of the worst-managed franchises in the NFL. A coaches' graveyard, that place.

Still, this could be it for that team. Warner is 38. A devout Christian, he's been given every QB's prayer -- a dominant receiver (think Terrell Owens in Philadelphia a few years back). The defense is playing pretty well, the running game is temporarily above average, and the line is doing a decent job of protecting Kurt -- but this is all paper thin. Win or lose this next game, exepct them to start strong next year and then struggle.

This is it, Kurt. Take your best shot. And don't think about Kerry Collins in Tennessee.

Posted by: Samson151 | January 28, 2009 2:32 AM
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