When to Hold ?Em, When to Fold ?Em


Applied Clinical Trials

Applied Clinical TrialsApplied Clinical Trials-11-01-2003

Moving ineffective personnel out of critical positions can be a difficult but necessary management task.

Leadership and process are so important to clinical research effectiveness that the stakes are as high as a big-time poker game. Kenny Rogers sang that the key is to “know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em.” Tricky in poker and tricky in business. When and how do you remove a person from the job they are in because they are an obstacle to success?

One of the toughest tasks an executive will face is to take a talented, well-respected, hard-working manager and reassign him or let her go. It is so tough, that many executives do not do it. The most common response to an underperforming or difficult employee is to cover your eyes, cross your fingers and toes, and hope the person leaves or transfers on their own accord. It can be a long wait. And meanwhile, your operation suffers.

Many reasons, few alternatives

The need to remove someone from a key position can have many sources. Some people’s jobs are no longer important to the enterprise, or the job may have changed in a way that does not fit the experience or skills of the person in place. Sometimes the position has to be weighed against other needs, and the company simply cannot afford this spot anymore, useful as it may have been.

Sometimes the person has been promoted beyond their abilities (as Laurence J. Peter most famously wrote about in his 1969 book, The Peter Principle). Often in clinical research organizations, you find managers who are threatened by change, and they resist in a misguided attempt to protect their jobs, when in fact they are ensuring their demise. This is not just about firing the old-timers—plenty of young rising stars are promoted beyond their experiential foundations to positions that better suit senior personnel.

The team approach to so many clinical research processes raises its own problems. As pointed out in previous columns, often the same small group of best team leaders are asked to serve over and over again, concurrently, on multiple teams. Effectiveness leading team A does not necessarily translate to effectiveness leading team B—the person may burn out, or the person may not recognize that what worked for his or her last team is the wrong way to lead the new one.

The British have a unique word for letting someone go (“redundancy”), which can actually be quite accurate rather than simply euphemistic. This is particularly true in merger situations—what do you do with two directors of monitoring or two directors of biostatistics? The tougher task in merger situations is to not protect people in power for the sake of merger politics, but to make the honest evaluation of the entire management pool and decide. Who is best for the new company and its new needs?

Holding on to the wrong manager is particularly painful for small companies that cannot afford underperformers, or that do not have a place to hide them. In a small biopharma or service company, everyone is in the spotlight. The company is truly a lean, multifunctional enterprise in which everyone needs to do her job well, and there is no safety net. Shying away from the tough decision to hire or transfer brings everyone down. As Harvey Mackay observes in his book, Swim with the Sharks without Being Eaten Alive, “It isn’t the people you fire who make your life miserable, it’s the people you don’t.” Because I am enamored with baseball metaphors lately, think of leaving the long-time star pitcher in the game an inning too long—it hurts everyone, including him, if you do not walk out to the mound and take the ball away.

Removing someone from their position can be particularly challenging for organizational cultures that move slowly or that pride themselves on the proverbial “family atmosphere.” People do not get fired from their families (much as we may sometimes wish they could!), and the company perceives the value of the family metaphor to be so beneficial that they will suffer through years of misplaced, underperforming aunts and nephews.

Obstacles to good research

The relevance of the underperforming manager to clinical research is evident in many ways:

Times and processes are changing. Not everyone is up to the task of change management or skilled in the nature of the new process, which may require more personal flexibility, less emphasis on making people feel good, and undoubtedly more technology-based tasks.

The increasing pace of global development may be too much for someone who is not adept at multicultural management.

A shift in therapeutic area focus will bring challenges that demand a mind willing to accept and understand how things are different.

The generation gap. For each maturing generation, with its unique skills and experience, it can be difficult to lead a younger generation which has a subtle but meaningfully different set of values (and vice versa).

Lack of tools. And then there are the superstars who are put in a place of leadership, without the life experience to handle crises, the interpersonal skills to manage teams, or the sensitivity to recognize political or interpersonal subtleties.

Change is good

In my experience, the most common cause for a failure to fire is fear. Usually, this fear is based solely on inexperience with the process, and thus it is a self-perpetuating stalemate. Executives do not learn how to move someone out of a position, so they remain fearful of it. There is nothing more personal than having to confront this issue, face-to-face, with the employee on the receiving end. Few want to put themselves in that position.

At the risk of sounding like some hated human resources guy in a cartoon, management change does not have to mean execution. It can mean a mutually beneficial change. Clinical research organizations have many diverse needs, and experience in research is a valued prize. So the company can often benefit by applying the deposed manager’s abilities elsewhere in a new role, even if she is no longer “in charge” of something.

Of course a humanistic employer has an obligation to do everything it can to ease the transition or exit. The key is to make the decision as soon as all the evidence is in. Talk to your peers, superiors, and examine the person’s direct reports, but do not be afraid to follow your instinct. You are paid to make judgments. Move swiftly and fairly, and know what you want the next steps to be—where the person can transfer to, or how they can be helped to leave as positively as possible.

An executive we all admired once said to me, as he was being escorted out of the building, “change is good.” A pharma manager recently told of seeing someone in a store some months after she had to fire him. The man walked up to her and thanked her for helping him move on to a better situation, “the best thing that ever happened to me.” Of course it does not always have a happy ending, but happy endings is not what being an executive is all about.

Judy Collins sang the words that Sandy Denny wrote: “Ah, but then you know, it’s time for them to go.” May you have the wisdom and courage to recognize it when the time comes.


  1. Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull, The Peter Principle (W. Morrow, New York, 1969).
  2. Harvey Mackay and Kenneth H. Blanchard, Swim with the Sharks without Being Eaten Alive (Fawcett Books, New York, 1996).

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