Ellen asks: At what precise point does a leader change focus to a more useful target? What is the key indicator that one should shift focus and garner the same talent for a different focus?
Aahh, Ellen, before I share my response I need to take issue with the word, "precise." Few things in management are precise. I think I get what you are trying to ask, though, which is what should trigger a shift in focus.
I think we get signs all the time. Disappointing results, disappointing progress, feeling ill at ease with tasks, inability to get to task B because of task A, feelings of overwhelm, and so on. All of these should trigger us to do a quick analysis of which work will make the greatest impact versus which work occupies our time.
The problem is that most of the people I have worked with see these signs not as a time to evaluate and refocus, but as signs that they are not getting enough done or that the job is unsatisfactory. Being unfocused is often an acceptable part of the corporate culture, which is a shame.
Because we are not very good at taking action when these signs are present, I suggest doing a quick review of tasks versus priorities versus impact on a regular basis. It is important to look at BOTH priority and impact because we often have tasks on the top of the priority list that will not make a high impact on the business.
I like your term mental acumen. As learn and apply a regimen of realignment and focus, we are building acumen that perhaps will allow us to more quickly see and act on the signs of poor focus. Great managers refocus much more quickly than their less effective peers.
Bryan asks: When do you sacrifice losing clients in order to remove a cancerous employee? I am almost ready, but have you ever dealt with this situation?
Bryan, I need to make a few assumptions to respond to this. First, I assume that you are saying that this employee has important contacts or relationships that would lead your to believe that if he/she left, you would lose clients. I also assume that by cancerous, you are saying that behind the scenes (not with clients) this employee affects the work of others in a negative way. If both of those assumptions are correct, here is my response.
I get the question about when to let someone go quite often. If the offense is egregious, then the time is immediately. In other situations, I would ask you the following:
1. Are expectations CRYSTAL CLEAR?
2. Does he/she know, specifically, in a non-watered down way, where his/her performance is NOT meeting expectations?
3. Have you offered and provided support and help that could assist him/her to improve his/her performance?
If your answers are YES, YES, and YES and you have seen no improvement, then it is likely time to terminate.