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Starstruck

Two noted management gurus debate the pros and cons of having a hotshot employee on the payroll.
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Two of our star columnists debate the value of hotshot employees

Dr. Steven Berglas: "They're management nightmares." I hear it daily. In many companies, self-centered stars who demand their own way and disregard the silent majority dominate. A growing business is the last place where these narcissists should be allowed to set up playpens.

Or maybe not. Sure, the bum rap that some business stars receive is well-founded, but let's not overgeneralize. Some of them, while cursed with an arrogant, imperious attitude that borders on (but isn't) hostility, are well worth the special care and handling they demand. Why? Because without them your business could plunge into receivership.

More often than not, your star sales director or B-school bean-counter braggart got his or her attitude the old-fashioned way: by earning it. I grant that strutting your stuff as some star employees are wont to do can upset the masses, but isn't some of the distress derived from jealousy?

Set aside results for a moment and consider morale. It's just not true that every star employee depresses the mood of a company. In fact, some raging narcissists can lift the mood of a business when, for example, it has lost a major account, because for these guys the glass is perpetually half full. So taken are they with their powers of persuasion and perspicacity that all they need to do to convert the mood of a business from bad to glad is to see some possibility for success off in the distant horizon. Truth be told, that reality-insensitive form of optimism, although grandiose, can work.

Flip the argument on its head and ask yourself if you want a horde of middling people running your company. Bereft of the moxie to weather tough or tragic times, the average Joe or Jane would collapse under the weight of a failure. But the narcissist, obnoxious though he or she may be, would probably act like the carpenter who blames his tools for bad outcomes, attributing an unwanted event to anything but his actions and proceeding, undeterred, toward his goal.

If you're considering reining in your company's self-anointed royalty, remember that their attitude can be energizing in positive ways to new hires or younger employees. People younger than 35 typically love role models who have attitude.

Many of you may be shocked that I, a licensed psychologist, am condoning the megalomaniacal behavior of some stars, of prima donnas who abuse and threaten the physical and psychological integrity of the people with whom they work. I'm not. In no way do I believe that a person who crosses the line from self-indulgence to abusive behavior should be tolerated in any organization. One instance of character assassination, sexual harassment, or physical assault, and I favor termination, EEOC rules advocating accommodations for mental illness be damned. But that's not what most prima donnas are about. They may be spoiled, but they're not sadistic or hedonistic, nor are they intentionally hurtful.

Many stars or prima donnas, in addition to being self-centered, are in fact scared. There's a lovely song from The King and I called "Whistle a Happy Tune." The singer says she whistles a happy tune when she's anxious, "so no one will suspect I'm afraid." The result of that intentional self-deception, as the song reveals, is that "when I fool the people I fear, I fool myself as well." Well, folks, this really works, and when the stars of your organization blow their own horn--even if it's in your ear--you might interpret it as their unique form of preparing for a business battle on behalf of your company. Much of the bluster that gives star employees their bad rap is a unique form of "self-medication" that allows them to function at full effectiveness despite being scared out of their wits.

Think of how, as an upstart young boxer, Muhammad Ali used self-inflation to destroy the then-formidable champion, Sonny Liston. Don't tell me that a person with an "oh, golly! I couldn't step on any toes today; it wouldn't be proper" attitude would battle a champion. And how does one build a business like MCI when facing the Goliath AT&T without an "I am the greatest" attitude? Do you think that any entrepreneur who takes on, and defeats, established businesses that control markets has an "all that matters is harmony in the workplace" orientation toward coworkers? Give me a break. The entrepreneurs who are lionized for their achievements have a "screw the naysayers; screw the establishment; get out of my way, or I'll knock you over" ethos. That's the soul of a prima donna; it's also the soul of an entrepreneurial leader.

Locker rooms are festooned with the slogan "When the going gets tough, the tough get going." You don't build businesses without that attitude, and workers who are afraid to ruffle feathers don't have it. Populate your organization exclusively with folks who don't believe that they're special, and your company's performance will mimic their attitude. Give the narcissists among you their due, as well as some special care and feeding, and I'll show you a company that's a contender for Inc. 500 honors. Sure, stars are noisy, pushy, self-centered, and brash, but boy, do they set challenging performance goals. Robert Browning wrote, "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?" You'll never get to business heaven by fostering peaceful coexistence over self-confidence, even if that self-confidence is the off-the-map variety manifested by star employees.

Dr. Steven Berglas is a management consultant and a psychologist on the faculty of Harvard Medical School.


Nancy K. Austin: Quick, who's more valuable to a growing company--a handful of hotshots or a guild of journeymen? Who's harder to do without, a virtuoso, or a skilled corps of reliable carpenters who can build trusty tables and unteetery chairs but have no pretensions to art?

As wages and productivity rise and unemployment stays superlow the search for A-1 people is getting pretty hairy. So plenty of employers try to lure top talent with hallucinatory salary-and-bonus packages. Even if you score, there's no way to compel a lavishly compensated wonder-worker to be an enthusiastic team player, but so what? Stars are stars because they're in a class by themselves; they don't need to work all that well with others as long as they outperform your expectations by 30% or 40% or 80%.

Meanwhile, the merely mortal yeomen and yeowomen work the mines, where performance standards keep getting higher. We ask a lot of regular employees these days. They're expected to pack their own chutes, keep their skills sharp, and work hard because they want to. Above all, they're supposed to contribute more than they cost. No 10-year, $70-million deals for them. Journeymen's work is as plain and as filling as a ploughman's lunch: not fancy, well done, and if you ask me, deeply undervalued.

We're starstruck. Not only that, we're so completely entranced by star shine that we're jeopardizing the real core of a business, the good stuff that makes it green up and thrive. If it's growth you're after, you have to do more than suck up to free-agent phenoms who swoosh in, do their spectacular thing, and decamp. You have to commit to building a diverse and capable crew that gets a genuine kick out of what you're all there to accomplish.

Of course, leaders of growing companies want--and need--to pull in the best and the brightest, like a magnet drawing iron filings. Think of Silicon Valley start-ups in which awesomely gifted software engineers need only name their preferred poison: all the Mountain Dew they can knock back, a six-month paid sabbatical--and let's not forget, mind-blowing signing bonuses and stock options.

The kerfuffle over talent isn't limited to the high-tech industry. It has occupied the thoughts of no less a luminary than former Citicorp chair Walter Wriston, who noted that "intellectual capital will go where it is wanted, and it will stay where it is well treated. It cannot be driven; it can only be attracted." Word up, Walter, but I'm worried that we've taken your lovely idea way too far. Our fascination with outsize talent has become a management Maginot Line; it used to be a mighty defense that kept us a couple of jumps ahead of competitors, but now it's leading us to neglect our most essential source of strength.

Picture this: To kick off a big company shindig, a sales honcho noisily singles out a few rainmakers in one extremely successful region as "superheroes," while his workhorses--the ones who contributed in no small way to a winning year--he disses as "non-revenue-producing employees." The slowerpokes, as Mr. Sales explained to me later, held "low-value jobs" and simply weren't worth the "psychic income" he'd have to shell out to pump up their performance. Is the guy nuts or what? Doesn't he understand that overdosing on highfliers can cost a growing business its soul, the thing that makes it what it is?

Since stars and the companies that hire them don't work together so much as collide, stars make their mark the same way a meteoroid craters a planet's surface: the impact leaves a permanent scar. A deficit. That's the opposite of acquiring and nurturing brainpower and know-how, a layered legacy crafted to endure and add value long after the stars have burned themselves out.

Our fabled stars have lost some of their patina lately. They've practically become commodities. Everybody knows exactly who they are and where to get more of them--kind of like lightbulbs. When a star zaps out, just grab another of equal lumens and plug it in. Tah-dah! No muss, no fuss, no steep learning curve to hoist people up and over.

Building on yeoman work translates into real competitive advantages down the line for any company, like better customer service, improved manufacturing expertise, a stellar reputation as a great place to work--distinctions money can't buy. And best of all, you enrich the talent pool from which your very own homegrown star talent will be able to spring.

Managers sometimes argue that putting all-star performance front and center is a good idea because it gives everybody else something to shoot for. That's just not true. Such thinking destroys the already shaky connection between employer and employee, even in the best companies: people you want to keep take off, and the ones who stay aren't into it. Productivity takes a swan dive, hiring costs shoot up, and you never can get a grip on what you do best, since the people you hired to do it keep leaving. You've created, however unwittingly, a powerful talent drain. To build a business that lasts takes an investment in journeymen, particularly the ones who have plenty on the ball but are foolishly overlooked in a world that goes loopy in the presence of migratory star power.

"I'm a pretty good carpenter in a town full of sculptors," a seasoned television writer in Hollywood told me. He's driven, all right, but what he cares about, what turns him on, is the chance to do what he does best, to give his employer his premium stuff, and to know that his ability and loyalty are appreciated. And they will be, sort of, because his employer knows he's a really good carpenter and that people always need places to sit. "You want a chair, I'll build you a chair," the writer says. "You want something artistic, good for you. From me, you still get a chair."

A good basic chair should not be taken for granted. Sometimes it can be indicative of hidden star quality. Remember the man who took plywood and molded plastic and turned out a series of chairs so innovative they bear his name? It took Charles Eames practice and more practice and tons of early failures, but ultimately, he gave the world a spectacular place to sit. Because somebody took the time to foster this fresh-caught future talent. Somebody bothered.

Nancy K. Austin cowrote A Passion for Excellence with Tom Peters.


Resources

"I really like Player Piano [Dell, 800-223-5780, 1952, $6.95], Kurt Vonnegut's first novel," says Nancy Austin. "Originally published in 1952, it seems current even now--it's all about managers and engineers and a supercomputer that controls everybody. A cautionary tale about what happens when the journeymen revolt.

"Also," continues Austin, "to show I really do like the Chicago Bulls [see 'What Do AOL and Dennis Rodman Have in Common?' July 1997], but mostly because this resource is right on, I recommend Phil Jackson's Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior [Hyperion, 800-343-9204, 1995, $12.95]. Coauthored with Hugh Delehanty, it's worth it for chapter 10 alone, 'Coaching Michelangelo.' In the book Jackson writes all about stars and journeymen and coaching and leadership."

Steven Berglas contends that "the best analysis of the conflicts aroused by attempting to prescribe how to lead and what behaviors should be fostered within groups" is by Ronald A. Heifetz in Leadership Without Easy Answers (Harvard University Press, 800-448-2242, 1994, $24.95).

Last updated: Sep 1, 1997




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