culture,  leadership,  performance management,  team building,  transitions

The tainted star

We’ve all met them. Many of us have worked with them. And sometimes we have had to fire them. The “them” I am talking about are those star performers who also have issues relating to those around them. If you give this star an assignment they can perform independently, they excel. But once you pair them with others, the trouble begins.  You often don’t recognize the signs quickly either.

In my experience, these stars tend to be self-starters. they have great skills in project management, research, and follow through. On the one hand, you appreciate how well they perform the tasks and projects you assign them. But conversely they tend to lack interpersonal skills and a sense of loyalty to their team and the organization. They hesitate to communicate with others -including you, their boss.

What is a manager to do? The answer is both complicated and simple. The simple answer is this: you address the issue head on.

The complicated answer is more nuanced.

I once hired an employee to organize a new program we were establishing. This was a mission-centric program that the Board had wanted for quite a while. This program director was perfect for the position, even a little over qualified. He was passionate about the target population and immediately excelled. He got the program up and running in record time including developing a huge network of supporters to assure the program’s long term sustainability. Any nonprofit leader knows this is a key performance measure! He was indeed a star performer.

But his staff considered him a bully.  His approach was too blunt. He micromanaged. He was naturally a large and loud person, so he was often accused of “yelling” at staff. I approached the issue directly and it worked. I explained how his management style was affecting his staff, and thus the program. He agreed he needed to change and also agreed he needed help to do that. We redesigned some of the program’s structure to have him less involved in the day to day supervision. This had the added advantage of giving a young, but very talented person an opportunity to prove herself. We gave him additional, but different duties, which capitalized on his strengths and background.

It was much as Jim Collins explained about good leaders in his seminal work, Good to Great. You will recall that Collins’ first requirement for great companies is to get the right people one the bus and in the right seats (Collins, 2001). Our tainted star was “the right people” he just wasn’t “in the right seat.” Once we fixed that problem, he was able to continue his stellar performance.

But sometimes you just need to get someone off that darn bus. Another former employee did a great job with most of the work, but her interpersonal communications skills were horrendous. In fact, she was a bully to nearly everyone around her. She received more complaints than any other manager I have ever worked with – by wide margins. And almost every complaint I received about this manager boiled down to one thing: She didn’t not treat them with respect. She was good – great, even – with the program’s requirements, investor relations, and the inevitable paperwork. But her human relations skills? Oh my!

Because she was good on the technical side, we wanted so much to fix the human relations side.  In the end, though, it was not fixable. She argued. She denied. She was defensive and passive-aggressive. I even offered to pay for a professional coach. When she refused, I knew she had to leave our bus.

Initially, I was worried about staff morale, but it improved – immediately and dramatically. In fact, staff stepped up to make sure that program outcomes remained high. Customer complaints stopped, too. My biggest regret in the scenario was delaying the ultimate decision.

Do you have a “tainted star” in your organization? Make a plan today to get that person in the right seat or off the bus. You will be glad you did.  (And if you need coaching about how to handle this or other organizational leadership problems, let us know. We can help.)