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Les McKeown's Predictable Success Blog

  • December 21, 2012
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How to turn your maverick top performers into jerks – and lose them 

 A version of this article first appeared at Inc.com.
There has been a bit of a furor in recent days as both Apple and Microsoft let go key senior executives (Scott Forstall and Steve Sinofsky, respectively) who were both categorized variously as ‘abrasive’, ‘difficult’ and ‘arrogant’.
In almost every popular account of the firings the two executives have been painted as ‘out of control’ and having lost the confidence of their peers – to the extent that in each case the CEO (Tim Cook at Apple, Steve Ballmer at Microsoft) had no choice but to reluctantly let them go: ‘more in sorrow than in anger’ as a number of reports put it.
There’s only one problem with this narrative: it’s so one-sided as to be dangerously naive.
Look, no-one with any knowledge of the individuals concerned has demurred with the general perception of Steve Sinofsky and Scott Forstall as being prickly, arrogant and occasionally insufferable, but look at who they were working alongside – Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer – none of who could be described as shrinking violets.
Nor is it the case that these two executives were Johnny-come-lately’s who didn’t ‘fit in’: Sinofsky joined Microsoft as a software design engineer in 1989 (24 years ago!); Scott Forstall came over from NeXT when it was purchased by Apple in 1997. Both had a sterling track record of innovation and execution that ran parallel with their occasional bouts of petulance.
In my experience, this isn’t a case of time running out for two people who had it coming. It’s clear that both Sinofsky and Forstall had in the past found ways to manage their outbursts that kept them within (barely) acceptable boundaries, but that each found the environment within which they were working becoming increasingly intolerable.
In other words, Cook and Ballmer allowed changes to happen in the culture at Apple and Microsoft that eventually pushed their ‘jerk over-achievers’ to blow.
It happens all the time. A free-wheeling, autocratically-managed company has room for (frequently maddening) visionary mavericks, until, one day, it doesn’t. Unfortunately, from that point on the organization is in Treadmill, and headed toward irrelevance.
Here are the top five reasons high-performing maverick employees go ballistic, how to spot them, and what to do about it:
1. Inconsistent / Frequently Changing Priorities.
Why It’s a Problem:
Nothing irritates a top performer more than ‘ditch to ditch’ or fad-based management.
How to Spot It:
Employees ‘hunkering down’ every time a new ‘initiative’ is introduced. Glazing over at ‘strategy’ meetings.
What to Do About It:
Set a short-, medium-, and long-term strategy and stick to them for a reasonable period without being distracted by the newest new thing.
2. Condoning Mediocrity.
Why It’s a Problem:
The #1 reason high performers leave organizations in which they are otherwise happy is because of the tolerance of mediocrity.
How to Spot It:
Disdain and distance between top performers and others who are not pulling their weight. Dissatisfaction with rewards (compensation, bonuses, awards, etc) given to others.
What to Do About It:
Set high goals for the entire organization, and build in both rewards (for success) and consequences (for failure). Apply both consistently and fairly.
3. Round Peg / Square Hole Syndrome.
Why It’s a Problem:
High performers like to do what they’re good at – not used as a a stop gap in some other way. They view themselves as Ferraris, and get frustrated if they think they are being used as a golf cart.
How to Spot It:
Disengagement from their allocated tasks and responsibilities. Lack of follow-up and accountability. General mopiness.
What to Do About It:
Review (with them) what you want this person to do. Freshen up job descriptions and re-orientate top performers to tasks that only they can do.
4. Underutilization.
Why It’s a Problem:
Same as above – when you’re a Ferrari (or think you are) you don’t want to spend your time idling at the curb.
How to Spot It:
Freelancing in areas that aren’t their responsibility. Getting under everyone’s feet. Going rogue.
What to Do About It:
Have the employee produce a list of what they could/should be doing to occupy free time. Review and agree on utilization. Look at your own delegation skills – if you have an underutilized top performer, it’s a sure sign you’re a micro-manager who has problems delegating.
5. Playing Favorites.
Why It’s a Problem:
Top performers not only believe in a meritocracy – it’s their air and water. Start playing favorites and bypassing people despite their results, and your top performers will be out of there before you can say ‘Holy second cousin’.
How to Spot It:
Your sister Sarah’s son Jimmy seems much happier than your best sales person.
What to Do About It:
If you need to be told, you shouldn’t be managing people.


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