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Les McKeown's Predictable Success Blog

  • April 28, 2024
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The top performer you need to fire today 

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A version of this article first appeared in Inc.com

Listen to Les McKeown read this blog post:

Building an organization that can scale involves many rites of passage – tough decisions that will threaten to derail your progress. 

The first, and for many founders and leaders the most difficult, is firing the people who stand in your way.

The need to do this – to remove people who were previously top performers, maybe even superstars – happens for the most mundane of reasons: Complexity, and the need to respond to it.

Here's why that is: In the transition from being a highly flexible, turn-on-a-dime, fast-growing small organization to a medium- or large-sized scalable one, there comes a point when it’s necessary to put in place systems and processes.

These are required to ensure consistency and reduce risk in the newly complex environment.

"The first, and for many leaders the most difficult growth decision is firing the people who stand in your way." - Les McKeown, Founder and CEO, Predictable Success

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There’s no rocket science involved here – the systems and processes themselves are usually relatively straightforward, and their need eventually becomes blindingly obvious once the smaller organization grows to the point that without them, it begins to drop the ball and make expensive mistakes.

It's just inevitable that when you grow, there comes a point when you need enterprise-wide systems and processes to keep the train on the track - things like HR, quality control, standard operating procedures - all things that previously would just have got in he way, but which now are needed to overcome the chaos of complexity.

To the founder/owner or leader, the path seems simple: install the required systems and processes, get through this brief period of Whitewater, then grow the organization to new heights using the newly-installed systems and processes as a solid bedrock for doing so.

Meet the Maverick Big Dog

Except there’s usually one person (sometimes more than one) for whom this isn’t so obvious – or simple: the maverick big dog (MBD).

‘Big dogs’ are the hard-charging, get-it-done Operators who work every hour God sends (and some) to build the success of the organization in the early days. Hard-working, loyal to a fault and powerfully effective, the big dog quickly builds sweat equity with the founding leaders by sheer effort.

Most Visionary leaders have at least one big dog without whom they know they would not – could not – have built their now-successful organization.

Big dogs are good – universally so in the early days of growth. But once the organization grows and becomes more complex, some big dogs – the maverick, independent-minded big dogs in particular – switch from being a great asset, to being a painful liability.

Losing their religion

For maverick big dogs, the imposition of systems and processes does two things, both of which for them, is incredibly painful: it greatly dilutes their previously hard-earned freedom and autonomy; and it threatens their special relationship with the leadership group.

Before, the MBDs came and went as they pleased. They were at the top of the totem pole and occupied a special place in the organization – one that they had carved out through hard work and sacrifice.

They could essentially set their own agenda, safe in the knowledge that the strong bond of loyalty they had built with the founder/owner protected them from anyone else’s interference.

Now with new systems and processes in place, the maverick big dog is expected to complete the same forms, attend the same meetings, submit the same reports as everyone else – and guess what? They hate it.

Now, let me be clear: the problem for the founder/owner or leader isn’t in itself the existence of a highly disgruntled big dog -  it’s the resulting threat to the entire organization.

Because at their worst, MBD’s don’t just buckle down and work through the new situation they find themselves in: instead, they rankle at the process-driven, cross-functional approach that’s required.

They cavil, whine, whinge, complain, undermine, and generally make life difficult for everyone working with and around them.

They cause dissension, build an insurgent group of like-minded people and force into the organization's culture a new, and incredibly destructive ‘them and us’ mindset.

By their acts Ye shall know them

Signs that you have a maverick big dog on your hands include hearing the following:

  • We never get anything done around here anymore. All we do is have endless meetings.”
  • What do you want me to do – sit in meetings all day or get this [insert important task] done?”
  • Back in the day…things used to be different.”
  • "I can't sit around filling in forms all day - don't you know I have an actual job to do?"
  • We’re not who we used to be. We’ve lost our family feeling / soul / culture.”
  • Nobody respects the old ways of doing things any more.”

Despite all this, there are a lot of reasons to put up with a maverick big dog:– 

  1. They’re highly effective Operators;
  2. They bailed you out many times during the early days;
  3. They had a close relationship with you – and might still do so;
  4. You can’t help liking (loving) their dedication and work ethic;
  5. There’s an element of truth in some of their complaints;
  6. You’re afraid to lose them to the competition;
  7. You think you can coach them through the transition (you can’t – MBD’s don’t change their spots).

You’ll be faced with some or all of these dilemmas while you ponder what to do with them – but there’s only one solution, if you’re going to build a scalable business: fire the maverick big dog that’s holding you back.

What about you? Have you had to deal with a 'Maverick Big Dog'? How did it work out? 

Let me know in the comments below!


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  1. Craig Groeschel says, "The people who get you to 100 are not the people who get you to 1,000". I understand the mechanics and metrics of the process, AND think that being a better human allows one to see the people and people and not just the 100 and 1,000.

    Coming off the amygdala hijack of headline sensationalism there is validity in the principle. Some people can benefit from new surroundings and new challenges, others can be a vital part of an organizations continued growth and success if tactical empathy is utilized.

    Communicating with the person to understand what shared goals still exist, if they do, can reinforce a foundation of trust and cooperation. They may be happy to leave on good terms and go conquer in a new battlefield?

    Alternatively if one easily kicks a human to the curb because they are 'in the way', then the likely result is that they do go to your competitor, and work twice as hard there to seek your demise. The maverick does not have to stay, but neither do they need or deserve to be discarded.

    1. Hi Dan – thanks for contributing here – I really appreciate it!

      There are many, many situations in which a hard-working, highly valued Big Dog team member who is irritated with how their business / organization is developing and changing can be accommodated (and continue to be valued). However I make clear in the piece that I'm talking not about someone who simply disagrees with the organization's direction of growth, but who is actively working to undermine it. Hence the 'Maverick' part of 'Maverick Big Dog'.

      There are only two options in that circumstance – either owner / founder / leader drops their commitment to growth / change, or it's time for the 'underminer' to leave. (After having seen this dynamic in action in hundreds of organizations, and having encountered it personally many times, I've learned that Maverick Big Dogs typically aren't coachable out of their mindset.)

      There's no reasion why such a separation needs to be a 'kicking to the curb' – it can be a generous, planned 'soft landing' if that's what the owner / founder / leader wishes. But in the circumstances I outline, it needs to happen.

  2. I’m the MBD. What you described is an accurate description of the present environment I find myself in. Without me the business would have failed before it reached a scalable level. So, you just kick me to the curb and say “Thank you for your service, leave your samples at the front desk”? What is your advice to an employee who has faithfully served three different owners over 26 years while being the top performer every one of those years?

    1. Hi Doug – thanks for the honesty of your reply. My advice would be to decide if you want to stay with the company on the course it’s taking and if so, let go of the ‘M’ part of MBD – it’s the only problematic part of the equation 🙂

      Hope this helps – Les

  3. When the MBD is the founder it is difficult and expensive to out-place them, but often necessary for the survival and growth of the business.

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