5 Tips For Challenging C-Suite Performance Conversations

When a member of your executive team is not performing, don't let it fester. Being proactive now will help you avoid big trouble down the line.

At E78 Partners, we estimate that over 70% of our clients have at least one underperforming executive. CEOs know that having a strong and cohesive C-Suite is critical to the success of the company, but the top of the org chart brings unique challenges when it comes to performance conversations.

The C-Suite is the most heterogenous collection of direct reports in the company. Oftentimes the executive ranks are excluded from the formal performance review process altogether, resulting in fewer structured opportunities for the CEO to provide feedback. Considering the range of dynamics unique to this group, here are five suggestions for addressing challenging performance conversations with executives.

1. Functional credibility. The top functional expert is less likely to accept feedback from those with less expertise in their area. A CEO who ascended from the COO role may be more comfortable giving specific feedback to the COO, who is also more likely to accept it. If the functional area at the center of the concern is not a particular strength of yours, reference specific success patterns you have observed from other executives leading the same discipline in past companies to boost the credibility of your points. “My last CMO did X and it yielded Y results. Can you help me understand how that approach could work for us?”

2. Own it. I discourage saying things like “The board is concerned.” The board may very well be concerned, but the conversation is about your concerns that resulted from multiple data points and your own observations.

3. Elevate the conversation. If two executives are having issues with each other, compounding performance challenges for one or both, consider enlisting the help of an impartial C-Suite operating leader with cross-discipline experience to facilitate a candid conversation. The operating experience will allow them to probe more deeply into the issues, the executives will be more likely to respect that person and feel more accountable during the conversation. I have seen this unsuccessfully pushed to HR too late in the game or to an executive coach without C-Suite operating experience. One or both can be quite useful but select from the universe of people who will have credibility with the parties involved.

4. Details. This may sound obvious but have the conversation during a time when the individual will not be representing the company in front of large audiences or important stakeholders. You would be surprised how often this detail is overlooked, resulting in truly unfortunate consequences. Particularly in larger companies, the CEO may not be aware of every industry event or speaking engagement on the calendar.

5. Make the call. Turnaround performances in the C-Suite are cause for celebration because let’s face it, they are rare. Senior executives are more likely to internalize negative feedback as inaccurate and therefore not adjust. If the performance conversation results in a termination or resignation, I suggest short transition periods followed by onboarding a strong interim. You can then take the necessary time to search for a great new hire (Find more on the topic in here.) Interim C-Suite leaders are readily available in the marketplace and their strengths tend to outweigh what they may lack in institutional knowledge.

In my experience, credibility is the single most essential element of success for the C-Suite performance conversation, followed by transparency and speed. Starting from this foundation and incorporating specific proven tactics should increase the likelihood of a positive outcome.


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