How to Be Direct with a High Potential Average Performer

It’s mid-year performance review time, folks, which means managers all over are having uninspired and vague feedback sessions with their employees. Most will, of course, blunder their way through it. For them, FOT and I offer a sample from Jeffrey Quinn, a guy who appears to know how to deliver 90 mph fastball direct feedback. Specifically, he shows you how to hit the high potential average performer.

Here’s the context: Quinn ran a company here in St. Louis called Solutia. They were a train wreck when he took over, but then Quinn spent eight years turning it around and sold it to Eastman Kodak. Quinn and his leadership team cashed out, then started an investment firm, Quinpario Partners, which looks around for underperforming companies to buy.

They found Zoltek, another St. Louis based firm. Quinn reached out with an above-market offer to buy-in to the company.  The CEO of Zoltek gave them the brush off, said they were doing fine and had lots of potential. Quinn has probably had plenty of performance conversations when people aren’t reaching their potential. He has no trouble being direct. Check some key excerpts from a letter he sent the CEO of Zoltek, with my comments in bold underneath.

Over the past several months, it has become even more apparent to us that Zoltek is underperforming and that a significant opportunity exists to dramatically improve operational performance and enhance shareholder value.

You have potential, but you’re not close to where you need to be.

Your recent presentation at the annual meeting brought this fact into even clearer focus, as your analysis of where the Company is today, compared to 2008, seemed misguided at best….Notably, despite five years of heavy investment in capacity expansion and operational improvements, the Company’s operational performance continues to stagnate, as evidenced by (i) flat revenue and operating income and (ii) deteriorating gross profit and cash from operations.

There are plenty of reasons why you should be performing, but you’re not. Here’s evidence.  (BTW, “misguided, at best” is just an awesome shot to throw at someone. Mix it in to your day today.)

This severe underperformance appears to be largely due to:

  • heavy investment of capital without adequate financial returns
  •  unsuccessful execution on the Company’s strategic plan for new market and application development
  •  the Company’s failure to diversify operations or exploit new market opportunities
  •  the Company’s unrealistically upbeat assessment of its operational performance and continued failure to meet street expectations and,
  •  the failure to develop a globally-oriented organization to take the Company to the next level.

If you thought you could blow smoke at me and justify your underperformance, you’re wrong. Here are detailed specifics on why you’re stinking up the place.

It is therefore not surprising that during this same period, and virtually over any time period, Zoltek’s share price has dramatically underperformed both the S&P 500 market index and its publicly-traded carbon fiber peers.

And, here is a performance bar that shows unequivocally that you stink. Get it together.

Check. That. Out. Quinn hammers the Zoltek CEO like Lindsay Lohan hammers Red Bulls with Grey Goose. He lays the details out and backs it up with examples. This mid-year review season, if you have a manager dancing around the fact that they have a high-potential-average performer, show them this letter.

FOT Background Check

RJ Morris
R. J. Morris is based in the STL as the Director of Talent Acquisition and Management for McCarthy Building Companies, a multi-billion dollar national firm. Like many others in the FOT clan, he’s a sports nut who can endlessly draw the parallels between athletes, sports and the talent management game. I know, I know, as if we needed more of that. He has 10 years of practitioner experience leading talent efforts in corporate HR and another 7 years in leadership roles on the agency side, so he gets both sides of the desk. Talk to R.J. via emailLinkedInTwitter...


  1. Kris Dunn
    Kris Dunn says:

    HI RJ –

    Love the translation on what it the copy in the letter means – well done.

    I think a broader question is how to draw out the potential in a HiPo, but average performing employee that you’re not prepared to acquire out of the business, etc. It takes a bit of the softer sell/coaching methodology, right? Even though you still have to be direct in what the shortcomings are.

    I’d add what’s in it for the employee if they stop being average as a carrot to try to get them on the high performing path to match the potential…


  2. RJ Morris
    RJ Morris says:


    Good point; it’s harder to be this direct with an employee inside the house as opposed to out. The in-house talent pro needs to identify, of course, why that HiPo is under-performing…usually the challenge is they are uninspired or bored with their current assignment, or they see their manager as a blocker as opposed to a mentor. These are real issues that usually need to be addressed at a level somewhere above the direct manager.

  3. Laurie Ruettimann
    Laurie Ruettimann says:

    Random fact: LFR was around and hiring “the talent” when Monsanto spun off its chemical division, now named Solutia.

    (Creve Coeur, motherhumpers!)

    Those were the days. Monsanto was evil and hated in different ways. This 22 yr old recruiter just wanted health insurance. She drove through picket lines and hired chemists and chemical engineers to work on milk hormones, weed killer, Celebrex, and something crazy and new called “RoundUp” for corn.

    How about that for a recruiting portfolio?

    And who knew GMOs would take off?

    (And I met my husband at the office. Not bad. Who says nothing good comes out of the chemical, agro and pharmaceutical business?)

  4. RJ Morris
    RJ Morris says:


    My read on Solutia as a business enterprise was that Monsanto set it up to fail by offloading all of their liability into it, but then Quinn and lots of other people somehow turned it into a pretty decent moneymaker. Given that, combined with now knowing that part of its legacy involves making the workplace Love Connection for you, I am even more impressed.

  5. David Berke says:

    What Jeff Quinn has done is not that hard to do if you can compare financials over time and strategic aspirations to results.
    To make this work for performance feedback – for a high potential or anyone else – you need the equivalent, i.e. specific performance expectations written in specific behavioral terms that the employee and manager agree on.
    Then the performance or lack of performance speaks for itself. Of course this means the manager needs to know what he or she expects and the employee needs to know that too. Isn’t that management 101?
    To get more from someone, Kris Dunn had a good idea in a recent post when he suggested saying something to the effect that it’s not as good as you can do.
    Whatever the conversation, I personally would stay away from calling someone “misguided at best.” I haven’t found that insulting people necessarily leads to productive outcomes.

    If you want to have a fight with someone tell them they’re misguided at best.

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