You’ve probably had one or two in your company. Maybe you’ve even worked alongside one or two of them. You know how to recognize them.
At one time, they may have had a vision. They may have been willing to take risks. They may have been interested in exercising leadership.
But now they’re running out the clock on their careers. They’ve achieved a certain position, and the only thing they want at this point is to make sure nothing disrupts them.
They’re taking the slow walk into retirement. And if you’re not careful, you could let them take your entire organization down with them.
This is a phenomenon among Baby Boomers, but to be fair to the Baby Boomers, that’s just because many of them are in this position at the moment. It will probably be the same for Millennials in 20 years.
Maybe it’s someone who’s just moving into his or her 50s. We’ll say it’s a guy named Gary.
Gary has a lot more of his career behind him than ahead of him. He’s got a pension fund built up. He’s 12 to 15 years away from drawing on the pension and collecting Social Security. He’s got some savings. He’s looking forward to walking away from work and enjoying it all.
But that’s not happening today or tomorrow, and Gary can’t afford to walk away from the job yet. What he refuses to do, however, is take any risks or rock the boat in any way. He has no ambition for promotions or anything like that. A raise would be nice, but he mostly just wants to protect his position and ride it out until he can walk away with all his benefits intact.
He’s like the football team that’s leading by three touchdowns with five minutes left in the game. They’re not trying to score more points so much as they’re trying to run out the clock. That’s understandable in football, because the game ends at the same time for all the players.
But that’s not the case at Gary’s company. There are younger employees who will be there 20 years after he leaves. For them, the game isn’t ending. They need the company pursuing big goals, taking risks and breaking new ground. And Gary isn’t interested in any of that. At best, he’s not going to help. At worst, he’s going to passively sabotage risky initiatives because he doesn’t want his comfortable status quo being jeopardized.
This is especially difficult at companies where ownership is looking at a generational handoff. The younger generation may be eager to assume the mantle of leadership, but they are not going to be happy to inherit Gary. He’s likely to be the biggest resister of the new generation’s vision for the company because it almost certainly means some sort of change for him.
So how do you deal with someone like Gary in your organization? Remember, he’s not only creating a problem by dragging his feet, he’s also creating potential resentment and division within the organization. You don’t want your team dynamic disrupted by one retirement-slow-walker.
This is where key performance indicators and operating performance reports make a big difference. If you can sit Gary down and show him data that indicates his performance is lagging, you’ve got a basis for a discussion with him about how to change it.
Companies that lack these measurements are just winging it with respect to assessing people’s performance, and a slow-walker like Gary can go hog-wild in a place like that.
It requires a very candid conversation and possibly a difficult decision. Gary needs to understand that the company has ambitious goals, and that it doesn’t matter how long any particular team member plans to be there. Everyone must be fully engaged in the pursuit of the goals. And you need some sort of follow–up and accountability – which Gary knows will be in place – to ensure he’s fully engaged from now until the day he hangs it up.
Going back to our football team: Imagine a team makes the playoffs, and one of its offensive linemen is planning to retire at the end of the season. How would the quarterback like it if the defensive pass rushers were in his face all day long because that one lineman didn’t want to risk injury in what could be the final game of his career?
That’s essentially what Gary’s doing to his colleagues, most of whom have a very real stake in the long-term success of the organization.
And while every leader prefers not to issue threats, Gary needs to understand that no job is guaranteed to anyone in the absence of performance. If he needs those 12 to 15 years to get across the retirement threshold, then he’d better start acting like the company’s success is his priority.
By the way, I can tell you this for sure: No matter how old I get, the slow walk to retirement is not for me. I can’t imagine becoming that risk-averse and safe, and abandoning the pursuit of big ideas and ambitious goals. I’ve always been that way and I’m confident I always will be.
Maybe the best way to deal with the Garys of the world is to pay attention when they’re young and looking for a job with your company. Do they seem team-oriented and goal-oriented? Do they embrace your company’s vision? Do they seem determined to do their part to see that vision realized, with the implied understanding that the company’s success will reward them as well?
Because if that’s the way they are when they’re young, they’re much less likely to turn into a Gary when they’re in their 50s. Prevention is the best cure.
Written by: Wade Wyant
Red Wagon Advisors