Sir Alex Ferguson confirms in his new book that former prime minister Tony Blair asked him “what you would do if your best player wouldn’t do what you wanted him to”. Ferguson answered “get rid of him”. But as Tony Blair discovered, outside the world of football it is not that easy.

‘I let colleagues know I felt it made us vulnerable being so dependent on one individual’

In the public sector, getting rid of an incompetent member of the team can be a long, torturous and frustrating experience. However, getting rid of someone you and others rely on, someone with expertise it would be hard to replace, someone with a lot of support and an impressive track record… well that’s risky.

I can think of three occasions as a senior manager when I faced this problem. In one case the individual threatened to leave, basically because they didn’t feel appreciated.

On another occasion, the individual used their specialist knowledge and resulting influence to undermine, block and resist initiatives they didn’t agree with – even into areas well outside their remit.

No rules

In the third case, the individual concerned developed an attitude that they were unquestionable, that somehow they were outside my management responsibility, that their department was a special case and the rules didn’t apply to them. For instance, the said individual could not be expected to take their share of budget cuts and they could not be expected to follow corporate policies if they felt it would impede the work of their department. They were also ambitious and sought to use their position and support to enhance their career.

‘It was the repeated assurances that everything was all right that undermined the board’s confidence and trust’

In the case of Louise, my anxiety about my own vulnerability should her unique skills and experience be lost led me to try very hard to persuade her to stay, despite her constant complaints about colleagues and her fondness for telling me what I should do. She left anyway. I didn’t try and find a replacement with the same unique skills and experience. Instead I split the responsibilities and appointed two people to fill the gap.

When it came to the case of Stuart I backed off. I avoided conflict, particularly in his area of expertise, but I let colleagues know I felt it made us vulnerable being so dependent on one individual. I then bided my time until each of my colleagues experienced a pet project being blocked by this individual. Reduced support and budget cuts refocused the work and meant less use was made of Stuart’s skills.

Frustrating experience

In the case of Jane, while her arrogance and behaviour alienated many and caused tension and conflict within the senior management team, she retained strong support – particularly among her loyal staff.

It was an extremely frustrating experience but she successfully convinced people at board level that she had things under control and that her staff were delivering, despite the difficulties being experienced elsewhere. She managed to keep those who were not supporters at a distance. I, like others, had no real idea what was going on as I only knew what she told me. This was very unsatisfactory but despite my best efforts I was unable to get straightforward answers to my questions.

In the end it was a combination of keeping people out and her over-confident reassurances that were her downfall. When a failing in a small area of her responsibility came to light it was not that her performance was poor or progress disappointing; it was the repeated assurances that everything was all right that undermined the board’s confidence and trust in her and led to her swift departure.