One of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made was to let a top performing salesperson go. During my startup days, I was learning about company culture and how important it was. The sales team started out being the backbone of the business and were the secret to our success at the start.
Later on in the business, the sales team became the biggest pain in the ass that we had to deal with and we didn’t know why, at first. When a new salesperson would join our startup, they would always come in optimistic and full of energy. Later in our startup journey, it would only take a few weeks for the smile and gratitude of being hired to be obliterated and replaced with frowns and complaints.
At first, we thought we were hiring the wrong people. Then we thought it might be the leadership. We went from closet to closet looking for skeletons and we kept showing up empty.
That was until one fateful day. There was a salesperson that continually hit their numbers and made us all a lot of money. We worshipped him because he helped us grow our business. One afternoon I was walking towards the other side of the office and accidentally heard a conversation happening in the other corner of the office.
“One thing you’ll learn about this place is that the product is rubbish and what we’re doing here can’t last. Enjoy it while you can and make the most commission you can before the dream is over.”
Hearing those two sentences sent a dagger to my heart. I was gutted by what I heard.
The problem was that our top salesperson was poisoning all the new hires when we thought that his sales skill was positively supposed to rub off on the new hires. The free training he was doing was actually the kiss of death to any salesperson that joined us.
The decision we made, looking back, was wrong. We had a word to him about not poisoning the new hires and we thought his behavior would stop. Time and time again we would find out one way or another that while he was smashing his sales targets and making us all lots of money, he was killing the optimism in the sales team which was halting our growth.
As we grew, our plan was to be less reliant on one sales person and this was not working out the way we wanted.
Late one afternoon, we called a meeting to discuss the issue. The sales manager suggested something drastic which we all thought was nuts when we heard the words leave his mouth: “Why don’t we fire our top salesperson?”
To put this question in context, when this salesperson joined us, he did more revenue than the entire team of salespeople that came before him within a month. He made us completely rethink what sales meant and changed the course of our business forever. Getting this out of our heads was difficult and that’s why we’d never had the idea to fire him before.
So, we decided to fire him as nicely as we could and explain what the issues were. A few weeks later, he sent us an unmarked envelope with nothing but a small card inside. That card was his new business card and he was working for our biggest competitor which he had hoped would make us very angry.
Life went on without our top performer.
It took time, but eventually, the positivity returned to the sales team and firing our best sales person and number number one performer ended up being the best decision we ever made.
The culture is more important than a single person
What we realized from this situation was that you can’t build a startup around one person. You can’t be held ransom or reliant on any single point of failure.
Diversifying your risk, especially when it comes to sales, is fundamental if you want your business to survive.
The 3 key lessons that stand out are:
1. Your number one performer may be selfish
Often your number one performer may be great at their job and as an individual contributor — but as a team player, well, they are selfish.
If they don’t win, they may be angry.
If someone else in the team succeeds, they may want to sabotage them.
If they don’t get what they want, they can use their success as a threat.
A number one performer is only useful if they can operate in a team and allow you to duplicate their success, and grow beyond the initial shock you may get from the outstanding performance they demonstrate (which could be unheard of in your business).
2. Top performers can become stale
In our case, the top performer resisted change and always wanted us to keep doing things the way we were because that is the model they had built their success on.
Doing new things threatened their number one status and that’s partly what caused them to act the way they did.
The thing is businesses need to change to keep being relevant and what worked a year ago may not work a year from now.
3. Things won’t collapse because of one person
The scary part about firing your top performer is that you worry about the initial loss of productivity that walks out the door when they do.
What I’ve learned is that the temporary loss won’t ruin the company.
Nobody is irreplaceable and you can always build again once the culture has been fixed and the number one performer’s path of destruction has come to a grinding halt, never to be repeated.
4. Healthy cultures share the title
Having a consistent number one performer is a problem.
In high-performing businesses, performance changes month to month and the title is shared.
Non-toxic cultures like to spread the love and see different people have their time to shine in the spotlight. No one person wins because the goal is to see the company and it’s purpose fulfilled rather than see someone get the same high bonus cheque every month and have the team be envious of that person.