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Firing Good People

Average reading time: 3 minutes 20 seconds

In December 2019 I sat at a conference listening to Chip Wilson, the founder of Lululemon, share his thoughts on leadership, business and building a great company culture.

He shared so many great insights with the audience. And he said a few things that made me recoil deep into my seat. The one that really made me sit up and think was this:

“Fire good people, keep great people.”

It’s a pretty hard-hitting point of view, right? Not entirely dissimilar to Jack Welch’s strategy of firing the bottom 20 per cent of GE employees every year, based on their performance ratings.

My leadership philosophy has always been built upon integrity and doing all that I can to get the best from people; doing all that I can to help them perform at the highest level. So, whilst there’s a lot of great stuff in Jack Welch’s book, Winning, this particular approach has always sat uncomfortably with me.

But there’s strong logic to the argument.

How can good people be compatible with a truly high-performing team, or one aspiring to greatness? And how happy is a C grade player going to be in an A grade team?

Once upon a time recruitment was just about finding the person with the skills and experience required to fulfil a particular role. Then, as businesses started to focus on the performance improvements that could be achieved through a great company culture, the narrative started to shift. The mantra became:

“Hire for culture, train for skill.”

But perhaps we’ve swung too far the other way. Maybe we need to take the central ground and seek the absolute best, in both realms.

It’s estimated that worker incompetence costs businesses up to 25 per cent of their revenue each year. And that doesn’t just hurt the business, it damages trust within teams and organisations too.

The reality is, that very few of us will go out of our way to collaborate with somebody who we don’t see as competent. We wouldn’t start a football match with our third best striker just because they’ve not had a full match for a few weeks, nor would we give a solo to the worst singer in the local amateur dramatics production.

So why do we expect our colleagues to work closely with team members who they don’t respect?

And what about all that extra effort and energy that is expended trying to avoid giving work to, or involving those who we see as not quite up to the mark?

And what about the time it takes to put right the mistakes made by the less-than-competent people in our team, or taking what they’ve done and having to bring it up to the required standard ourselves?

It’s logical then that if we want to achieve breakthrough results and build a high-performing team, we must first establish the highest standards of personal competence. We must look to have a team of A players, if we want to build an A grade team.

So, as uncomfortable as it may be for some us, perhaps we really do need to fire good people and keep great people – if greatness is our aspiration.

I’ve been reflecting on this a great deal over the past few months, and I think it can be done in an honest, decent and truly human manner. For this approach to work however, we must do the following:

  • Put significantly more care and attention into our recruitment decisions.
  • Be explicitly clear about the standards expected in our teams and businesses.
  • Act with radical candour; improve the quantity and quality of the feedback that we give.
  • Act quickly; when we realise someone isn’t right, act.
  • Do the right thing, if we’ve brought the wrong person into our team then it’s our fault, so we have a moral obligation to treat them well on the way out.

Whilst this all makes sense in theory, it’s incredibly tough in practice. It’s certainly something I struggle with as a leader.

But being a leader is a tough job at times. It involves making the hard-right decisions, as opposed to easy-wrong ones.


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