Dealing Effectively with Unproductive Principals


As the market continues to heat up, one of the most common needs of architecture, engineering and environmental consulting firms is to hire “seller-doers,” rainmakers or principal-track staff, according to consultants with Natick-Mass.-based ZweigWhite.

These are senior-level professionals who can make a deep impact on an organization in terms of growth and profitability. “Many firm leaders feel the pressure to fill these types of positions promptly and ignore the advice of hiring slowly and firing quickly. Then, when the new hire doesn't work out, the rationalization is that an employee giving 50% is better than having no one at all,” says Sarita Peng, a principal with ZweigWhite who specializes in staffing solutions consulting services.

Every firm with multiple principals should be prepared to deal with a senior-level hiring blunder or an unproductive principal staff member. Peng shares a few tips firm leaders can take before firing a high-level employee:

* Establish clear performance metrics. Holding principals and senior management accountable is difficult if there's no way to measure success. Be sure to track project performance (whether projects are brought in within budget and on time), revenue generation in new sales and the ability to successfully retain the staff.

* Conduct regular performance reviews. In many firms, all employees except principals are reviewed. These performance reviews should occur at minimum of once a year and can be conducted by the CEO, president or principal's supervisor; by two other principals; or by the board of directors.

* Confront problem principals. Senior-level staff members who are not pulling their weight are detrimental to firm morale and need to be addressed immediately. Issues that may need to be addressed can be anything from poor performance to indiscretions to a drop in productivity.

* Create a paper trail. It's critical to have proper documentation of a problem and its progression. Sit down formally with the principal to give a warning and let him or her know what needs improvement. Set a specific timeline for which progress needs to be demonstrated and if conditions should continue, put the principal on formal probation.

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