Firing top performers to save your team’s culture? Are you up to that?

“No, that’s not why you’re here,” Colleen Abdoulah told Bob. “You’re here because you may not be part of WOW! for very long.” Bob’s jaw dropped and his face turned ashen as her words sank in. He looked down at the list of impressive achievements he had accumulated in his first thirty days since joining the company. Moments earlier he expected to receive accolades, certain that his production and leadership caught the eye of his CEO, Abdoulah.

Bob asked her to explain. “Let me tell you what I’ve heard about you; I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from your fellow employees,” Abdoulah continued. “Yes, all the things you’ve done and the changes you’ve made are good, but you’ve done all of this in a way that is dictatorial, hierarchical, very autocratic, and micromanaged. You don’t respond to email unless it’s somebody with a title. You don’t return calls in an appropriate amount of time. That’s not what we do here. That’s not how you serve your internal customer.”

Bob just sat there and said, “You’ve heard all that just in the past thirty days?” Yes she had, Abdoulah said, and then asked, “What is it about the service structure that you don’t get?” And he replied, “Let’s go through it again.”

So she led her wayward new executive through the company’s service structure one more time and told him what it takes to lead in that kind of environment. And then he looked at her and said, “I got it. I intellectually understood the service structure and this culture before, but I had not embraced it in my heart and moved that intellectual knowledge into my behavior and into action.” He stood up and said, “If you’re comfortable with me, I’m ready to go now. I can tell you that you will never have to have this conversation with me or any one on my team again.” Abdoulah looked Bob in the eyes and said, “I trust that.”

Abdoulah, a friend of mine, was tough, a no-nonsense, experienced CEO who built one of the ten largest cable TV and Internet service providers in the U.S., WOW Cable & Internet (NYSE: WOW). She understood that her top priority was advancing the service structure and company culture. After all, WOW’s employee culture helped catapult WOW to the top consumer satisfaction ratings within her industry, garnering seventeen first-place rankings in the prestigious JD Power & Associates consumer studies of telecom companies.

This decision to potentially terminate a top, highly productive executive for the sake of the company’s culture provides evidence into Abdoulah’s character, leadership priorities and Fusion Leadership philosophy. Fusion Leaders fixate on behaviors that “fuse” their teams together, in support of a shared Mission.

This is also where most leaders fail, relenting to the temptation to hold onto a top performer and missing a critical opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to the Mission while falling victim to their selfish need to avoid the painful experience of taking ownership of the human crisis. When leaders tolerate an employee who (unwittingly or intentionally) demonstrates behavior that is contrary to the Mission, they communicate the message that “its ok to trample on others as long as you complete your work” or “this person is above others because they are an executive” or, even worse, “your boss’ needs come first and the front line workers merely show up on Monday morning to make the executives more powerful and more wealthy.”

On the other hand, when a Fusion Leader assumes responsibility for terminating other executives (or any employee) who behaves in a manner that is contrary to the Mission, they communicate the message “we are all responsible (to some degree)” and “we are in this together” and, most importantly “I (as the leader) am handling this crisis because this is necessary to achieve our Mission.”

The internal leadership struggle as to whether to terminate or retain a ‘top performer’ whose behavior is contrary to the Mission is one of many opportunities leaders have to “fuse” their teams together around a shared Mission, a leadership process I came to describe as Fusion Leadership. Fusion Leaders obsess over the question as to how to inspire the following of others, how to earn the loyalties of an organization and ultimately how to motivate teams of people to manifest an organization’s Mission.

When leaders fall victim to their selfish ego needs, like dodging the decision to terminate another executive, they drive a wedge between their team and the organization’s mission. They provide evidence to their team that their personal needs are more important that the organization’s Mission. That is demotivating. People want to work toward a Cause or Mission. People are repelled by the notion of working toward simply fulfilling their boss’ ego needs.

Fusion Leaders look for every opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to the Mission. Consider the question- when you conduct a meeting, who becomes the smartest person in the room? Or, whom do you prioritize on your calendar when you allocate your precious time? Or, how much do you pay yourself compared to how much you pay others who are also working to realize the Mission?

Recently Colleen told me, “Bob [became] one of the company’s best leaders.” And certainly Abdoulah’s willingness to terminate a top producing executive for the sake of the larger organization played big in Bob’s evolution, making clear to Bob that his job required both production and that he helped contribute toward WOW’s culture of customer focus.

Next time your organization’s Mission is challenged by the contrary behaviors of a key executive, ask yourself “is this an opportunity to demonstrate my commitment to our Mission” and “is it time to cut off a limb to save the body?”