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The trouble with "Martha"

Succession Part 9: H.R. Committee struggles for solution

The trouble with "Martha"

Over the next few years, a wave of generational change already underway will accelerate in the nation’s community banks. This series has been exploring common mistakes made in management succession plans, and how they can be avoided. For links to the entire series, click here. Editor

The bank’s operations area is in turmoil.

A never-ending stream of regulatory requirements shoehorned into legacy systems has totally distracted management from being bankers.

Yet throughout the turbulence, one mid-level manager stands out: Martha.

Martha (not her real name) consistently gets things done. Her staff works hard to meet her high standards and deadlines.

Should the bank consider Martha for higher position?

Two sides of “Martha”

Senior management loves Martha: No task is too difficult. “She’s a magician.”

Martha’s staff hates her: “She’s an unreasonable cold-blooded witch.”

Her employees remember the time a mailing had to go out on a Friday afternoon. Ten thousand envelopes to be stuffed and labeled. At 5:00 p.m., as Martha prepared to leave the office, she yelled at the staff working on the mailing, “If this doesn’t get finished today, don’t bother showing up for work tomorrow.” 

This phenomenon of pleasing one’s masters while simultaneously oppressing subordinates is known as “Kiss Up, Kick Down.”

What to do about Martha?

The bank’s decisions on succession, recruitment, and development were determined by its H.R. Committee. The committee had worked its way through plans for the senior team and was now addressing the middle-management layer.

Martha’s boss, the vice-president of retail banking, spoke first: “Martha is an exemplary manager. We should be fast-tracking her to a more senior role. I’d hate to lose her if she feels unappreciated.” 

There were nods around the table as other team members recalled situations where Martha had done the seemingly impossible.


“There is one other piece of data we need to consider,” the HR director interjected hastily. “Martha’s 360 scores from her staff are in the toilet. And her peers don’t think much of her either.”

To a lonely shepherd managing sheep, leadership style is not at all important. But if you’re a mid-level manager about to take on bigger responsibilities and more headcount, style becomes critical. It’s not about being popular; it’s about being effective.

A robust talent management system includes tools like 360 evaluations, measurements of turnover, third-party exit interviews. All help to separate fact from perception.

It’s one thing to reward hard work and success with a promotion. It’s another to convert a small problem into a bigger one.

The quandary facing the HR Committee: How to convert the toxicity that Martha spewed into productive team-based energy.

Fixing Martha for everyone—even Martha

The go-to solution is inevitably coaching.

“Send Martha to a coach to be fixed!” 

The problem is that unless the “coachee” buys into the problem and its consequences, coaching is largely an exercise in frustration for everyone.

Fortunately, armed with irrefutable 360 scores that compared Martha’s self-evaluation with that of others, the H.R. director was able to initiate the “unfreezing” of opinion that is a critical element of change management.

Martha understood that unless she created alignment between productivity goals and staff’s desire for respect and recognition, she would never achieve the kind of personal success she craved.

As the H.R. Committee monitored these developments and moved closer to determining a promotion for Martha, another question arose: Who would fill in behind her? 

I’ll discuss the answers in my next column.

John Szold

John Szold is the CEO of Planning for Succession Inc. He can be reached at 800-487-0395 or [email protected]

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