Guest AuthorHema Ravichandar

Rein in your primo uomo

Source | Hema Ravichandar (The Mint)

If your star performer is slipping out of control vis-à-vis the team, it’s time for you as a leader to counsel, coach and if need be, constrain him or her in the interest of the team.

All of us swear by them. They are the stars in your constellation, residing in your inner circles of inclusion. The blue-eyed boys and girls, your go-tos in tough situations. The ones you leave your toughest problems to.

Many a time they have skills you don’t have. The ability to play bad cop to your good cop. The aggression to hit the pavement and earn hard-won business versus your new-found love for the softer air-conditioned life. The invaluable charisma and drive to break a news story or drive a hard-nosed bargain. They complement you perfectly, boss to subordinate, and with the valour of their deeds let you bask in bright, even if reflected, glory. In short, they become indispensable.

So what’s with this need to rein them in? “Success can make you go one of two ways. It can make you a prima donna—or it can smooth the edges, take away the insecurities, let the nice things come out,” says journalist, author and TV personality Barbara Walters.

All augurs well if they can tick the boxes on all the great behaviour and mindsets required for their roles. But many a time, such stellar performers come with some not-so-easily papered-over gaps in the competency soup. Team player, team builder, listener, business partner, collaborator, organizational good before self good, consensus builder, even followership, are a few that come to mind. What’s more, a killer competency in one situation may actually kill in another. Aggression, great in a competitive battleground, can be fatal for a collaborative internal culture if unleashed on peers and the young. Common rogue behaviour that comes to mind is the “take no prisoners” attitude of many successful prima donnas (or primo uomos) or the “my way or the highway” philosophy they espouse.

The ability to meet deadlines time and again, every time, is what gives them the high, but if the high becomes the end it could well-nigh kill the team and make the work environment a most inconsiderate one. Similarly with risks; especially if taken in a cavalier manner with unwarranted self-confidence. It could then put the organization itself at risk. In seeking success which gives them the high, short cuts become the norm, with the manner it is achieved or the “how” itself becoming the casualty.

Sure, they are stars all right, but with chinks in their armour. And the danger is when bosses forgive them their shortcomings in the face of their indispensability. Worse still, indulgent bosses may let the same gaps morph into fatal flaws which strike at the root of the organizational or team culture and long-term success.

So how do you handle your famous Abel and prevent him from turning into Kane?

The most important first step is to not ignore the early warning signs or adopt an ostrich policy when you start hearing the murmurs. As a wise person said, “When you avoid what you must face, the situation becomes bigger than you and takes control over you.” So face the unpleasant truth that your hero comes with warts.

Once identified, it is critical to not ease off or pussyfoot around them, but stay the course and follow through on the execution. You need to call them out, to hold up the unforgiving mirror. Simple? Not so, say many. “The indispensability of your employee (remember he or she complements you, completes you), the track record and the silver tongue are all hindrances in putting the message across and more importantly, getting the person to listen,” said a CEO to me. “And actually, once that is done half the job is over.”

Counsel and coach. Highlighting the consequences of “bad” behaviour is critical. What will happen to others and to them? “Don’t ever let them think that showing disrespect is a sign of power and authority,” said one manager who had to handle a severe inter-personal issue with her star. Also, show them how this behaviour or lack of skill will impede their chances of growth in the future. “Give the bitter medicine when needed—maybe a plum assignment to someone else.” A word of caution here though. Such steps need to be taken early, as soon as the first signs start appearing. Later, it may be a case of too little, too late, or may even be counterproductive.

Also, this is ideally done by you, the boss, along with a third party, either inside or outside the organization, whom they trust and admire. Preferably a “been there, done that” kind of person who reformed from a high-performing but “bad-boy” image to that of an admired statesman. If not, the experiment could fail miserably.

Remember, our protagonist is smart. So while s/he may appear to tick all the boxes on the recommended journey, there may be no true or lasting behaviour change.

I remember a case where the person in question was asked to genuinely improve his team-building skills. He made it a point every fortnight to take his team for high tea. All of them sat around in funereal silence while our hero held forth on how this was great team building. For the coach concerned, he had a log to show all the many teas he had hosted. Not much behaviour change emerged, as you can imagine.

Push to derisk them with successors. Persist. This is easy to ignore. Especially when the incumbent star delivers on the promise, and is not too keen to have the successor in place. Remember, indispensability and succession planning don’t coexist easily. But push you must.

Else, keep a potential successor warm someplace else. In a sister department, another organization, wherever, in case you need to pull the plug. Because if ever there is a choice between the “greater good” and the “good of the star performer”, you should be able to choose the former.

Never squander a plaintive cry of being stressed out from all the hard driving. Encourage them to take breaks, or even a hard-earned sabbatical to refresh and rejuvenate. Be brave. Don’t worry about the minor disruptions that may occur or they may even engender. It is not too hard to roll up your sleeves once in a while and deliver as if you were your own star subordinate.

Don’t try to “round-hole ready” a square peg. “Don’t attempt to make people managers out of them,” said one industry leader to me. Easier said than done, I know. But if you have to, and if “eating their young” is their flaw, try and buffer them with a good people manager in the team. It’s important though that they accept, and people respect, the said people manager.

Remember, the idea is not to smoothen out all their edges. It is that edge that keeps them performing. Their aggression is probably what got your organization wherever it is in the first place, or your team its moment in the sun. So don’t opt for country-club cosiness, compromising the X-factor that brought success. Just work hard to turn him or her from yet another high performer with foibles to a true statesman and organization builder.


Hema RaviHema Ravichandar is a strategic Human Resources Consultant and a HR Thought Leader. She is  a renowned Leadership Coach and serves as an independent director and an advisory board member for several organizations. She was formerly the global head of HR for Infosys Ltd.

First published in The Mint. 


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