Before They’re Fired – A Personal Improvement Plan

LeadLearnWhen you hear from high-caliber, top-quality people who were let go from a job, they’ll often tell you they heard the phrase “you just weren’t a good fit”. That can be another way of saying “we didn’t know how to manage you.” In my experience, the key to managing highly artistic or technical staff requires a different managerial approach that helps bridge the gap between their tremendous skills/abilities and the culture of the organization.

What I’ve learned about leading talented, creative team members goes past the Human Resources checklists with a deeper dive to discover the root of the problems. As author Bob Hamp talks about in his books, the issue is almost never the issue; it’s symptomatic of the real problem. Sometimes, the soft skills of communication and inter-staff roles is creates a disconnect between these artists and techs and the rest of the staff. In my coaching and consulting,  I often end up helping these creatives to identify blind spots and areas where growth is necessary in the context of a church staff.

For a number of reasons that have everything to do with a lack of humilitybroken places in my heart, and poor examples from my childhood and early jobs, I found myself as the ‘black sheep’ of a large, fast-growing church staff. At the too-young age of 23, I was leading a team of volunteers, running a brand new television and tech arts ministry, and in way over my head. I was talented and ambitious but lacked the emotional intelligence or leadership experience to understand that I was running over staff and volunteers under the guise of innovating and blazing a trail.

Oh, I was blazing alright – and a fiery wake of relational wreckage was the smoldering evidence.

Fortunately, I met and befriended older mentors who helped me learn, seek forgiveness, and temper my passion and enthusiasm with grace and patience. It was years later that I found myself leading teams when I recognized the same impetuous characteristics in a wildly talented individual who was quickly earning himself a fast exit from a good job. He was plenty talented and did very good work, but was quickly losing the respect of other staff and leaders. Helpful suggestions and constructive conversations had not proven to get his attention, so I had to talk with him about a 60-day Personal Improvement Plan (PIP).

In the HR world, I’ve found that a PIP is often a cloak for getting rid of, instead of trying to keep, a valuable employee. When I use the term Personal Improvement Plan, the heart is to restore relationships, set milestones, and define expectations to understand and evaluate progress.

Restore Relationships First

The employee needs to know that he/she is first and foremost a team member, not a solo player, and that they are valued – and most valuable – as a part of a team.  The fruits of the Spirit–in particular self-control and patience–are a part of the maturity of a believer that have plenty of opportunity for exercise during a PIP. It’s important to remember that all change is hard in the short-term, but the pain of staying the same is worse, especially when job termination is on the line.

Start by reinforcing what you see in the employee. They’ll need for you to tell them that while you see the obvious talent and potential there are some bad habits that are career-limiting – and not just at your organization, but in any job. The purpose of the PIP is to clearly define what actions and attitudes need to be evidenced (and how) and what kind of steps and milestones (this-by-then; then-that-by-this-time) they will need to be aware of as part of the evaluation process.

Set Milestones & Define Expectations

Speaking specifically to followers of Jesus, as believers leading other believers, we’re not looking to modify behavior; we’re looking for heart change (measuring spiritual fruit). In most situations with talented employees, this has almost nothing to do with their skills and abilities but about their interpersonal relationship issues or time/project management soft skills. PIP’s must not be ambiguous or subjective but instead an honest attempt at helping restore an employee to use their gifts, talents, and abilities in practical and realistic ways.

In my experience (having both being the recipient of a PIP and leading others through one, too) a PIP should be given a hard deadline of 60 days with weekly milestones. A full 60 days signals the intent of the organization to try to keep a person they want to see on the team. It also provides the employee to understand the kind of shifts and adjustments necessary to work well within the culture of the organization.

Measurable milestones might include:

  • Daily check-ups with you (that you document in some way) that focus on how they’re doing and what you see and what they are feeling/experiencing during this season of change.
  • Weekly review meetings with your leaders about their experiences with the employee during the past week, especially as it pertains to the PIP.
  • For the employee – a smile and a positive response to requests. I’m not saying to be sappy and gushy, but to earnestly train themselves to look at each person as someone to serve. Talk about how often you notice or hear about positive changes daily and/or weekly. Encouragement matters.
  • Ensure projects are early or on time. Meeting deadlines and commitments are important to re-building relational equity. This should be happening even without the PIP.
  • CC’ing you on all their email communications in response to requests or proactively seeking information about an upcoming project – and reviewing issues/growth weekly.
  • Review their e-mail/project management communications and help the employee learn how their word choice informs the reader of the tone of the email. Review good and bad examples weekly.

If there is little to no discernible and measurable (even anecdotally) change within the first 30 days, an interim meeting should be scheduled with the employee. Since a PIP is generally the last-ditch effort to keep an employee from being terminated, it is important that they fully understand their progress and not be surprised by any decision come day 60. Using a healthy and clearly defined PIP, the employee’s success is truly their choice. That means the employee’s change, or lack there of, may very well force the organization’s hand to terminate the employment of the employee.

Finally, a PIP should never be punishment. It’s important to reinforce this to the employee, who often simply feels misunderstood and isn’t aware of how they are interacting (poorly) with other staff. And while it’s not about punishment, it is about career and interpersonal development, and helping restore the employee to full trust and relational equity.

Have you used (or had placed upon you) a Personal Improvement Plan? What was your experience? Comment below. 



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