When a rainmaker is also your most disruptive management problem, you have a tough choice to make


A few years ago my friend Sam was looking for an experienced go-getter who could help build the banking division of his growing San Francisco financial-services company. Enter Harry, a gifted salesman with a great reputation. Wherever Harry had worked, he'd increased both the top and the bottom lines. Sam's banking clients thought Harry was terrific -- fast, efficient, and accessible, and a great problem solver.

Soon Harry was landing clients that were bigger than any Sam had ever been able to attract on his own -- all of them overflowing with praise for Harry's abilities. A brand-name bank's president even went so far as to joke that he was going to make Harry a partner. Harry had a knack for finding the perfect solutions for Sam's clients and an almost supernatural ability to cut through the red tape of most regulatory agencies.

But there was a Darth Vader side to Harry's personality. Though he was great with clients, he couldn't care less about his support people or the detail-oriented record keeping and follow-up work they did for him. When inevitable problems came up, Harry would scream at and blame his subordinates: "Damn it, just fix the problem!" "Can't you do anything right?" "All of you are worthless!" Laboring under Harry's constant abuse, the staff grew to despise him. Many staffers left or asked to report to other managers who were more benevolent, people more in keeping with the general culture at Sam's company. But Harry -- no matter how serious his problems -- was a rainmaker, and in spite of everything, he was generating a considerable amount of revenues.

Enjoying the fruits of Harry's labor but aware of his abrasive, abusive treatment of the staff, Sam tried to coach Harry on how to treat people better. Whatever Sam tried, it was unsuccessful. Harry's rainmaking continued to get an A plus while his people skills garnered a D minus.

Faced with this sort of situation, what would you do?

After 20 years of dealing with many odd alliances and odder-yet rainmakers, I think the subject is complicated. On one hand, a good rainmaker can be invaluable to the bottom line of any business. On the other, a supersalesperson with a dark side often extracts a very high price in terms of a company's morale, culture, and management.

As I see it, Sam had several alternatives, and these may be your choices as well for how to deal with rainmakers:

1. Leave the rainmaker alone. If you make a bargain with the devil, you're going to have to deal with the trade-offs. Up to this point, that's the way Sam had chosen to handle Harry. Harry's abuse of his subordinates and the ensuing souring of the company's culture, along with the increase in employee turnover, was the price paid for Harry's great sales skills.

2. Shore the rainmaker up. Sam could have "shored up" Harry by hiring a new support staff that would be dedicated solely to Harry's "needs" and would therefore be obligated to put up with his obnoxious behavior while providing the necessary follow-up to the operations side of the business. However, few employees, no matter how dedicated, could have withstood Harry's difficult behavior long-term. Ultimately, if Sam had chosen this option, he would undoubtedly have had to make frequent, and major, staff changes part of his cost of doing business. Aside from the considerable economic strain, Sam also would have had to be willing to live with an altered company culture -- one that didn't treat people very well and one that tolerated bad behavior from a few favored executives.

3. Create a partnership. Sam could have paired Harry with a good cop to offset his bad behavior. But finding a good cop to act as the bridge (and buffer) between Harry and the staff might not be an easy task or anything more than a temporary solution. Of course, if you create a partnership or shore up the rainmaker, you're forcing the person or people who support him or her to carry the burden of the rainmaker's offensive behavior. No small feat for anyone.

If you leave the rainmaker alone, he or she can wreak havoc with your working environment and your own standing within your company. If you shore the rainmaker up, you are -- overtly or covertly -- giving the rainmaker permission to continue behaving badly. Plus, you're incurring the expense of bringing in new staff or a new partner. All that may cost your company more, economically or emotionally, than any new business your rainmaker could possibly generate.

What did Sam do?

After three years he came to a difficult conclusion. Banking clients aside, Sam couldn't keep Harry when he didn't display any respect for Sam's company, its culture, or its employees. Sam decided to promote five people within the company to bring in new accounts and to begin serving some of Harry's clients. Although none of those in-house people began as rainmakers, all of them possessed the human qualities that Sam valued -- a sense of urgency, a need to win, and a feeling of empathy for people, which was absolutely crucial in his business.

As for Harry, he eventually left Sam's company to run another San Francisco concern, where he started off like gangbusters, bringing in new business from the get-go. But after five years, no surprise, his key staff couldn't take his behavior anymore. This time they moved on. Without support, Harry's rainmaking turned from a downpour to a drizzle.

There's a simple lesson to be learned from Sam's experience. If you're intent on hiring a rainmaker, it's best to be aware of that person's strengths and limitations before you make a job offer. One thing to watch for is a big ego that really disguises a fragile ego. A rainmaker's big ego usually comes from believing his or her own public relations, while the fragile ego is usually what exists beneath the bravado.

Personally, I use a 10-80-10 rule. Whether you're talking about rocket scientists or rainmakers, 10% of employees are terrific, 10% are terrible, and the other 80% fall somewhere in the middle. You can increase your chances of hiring someone who falls within the terrific 10% by interviewing steadily until you find the right fit. You can also offer incentives to ensure that future success is rewarded.

That's the conventional wisdom, and it's a good starting point. But here's some unconventional wisdom that works.

First, rate people before you hire them. Ask yourself, "Where does this candidate rank on a scale from one to 10? Is this person a 10 with clients but only a 4 with coworkers?" Be honest, but also be critical.

Second, most of your candidates will have anywhere from a 2- to a 20-year track record, which is infinitely more important than the interview itself. When you call references, front-door ones and back-door ones, ask, "On a scale from one to 10, how would you rate Harry?" Most people respond well to a 10-point scale.

Finally, if you're concerned about whether a candidate's references will be completely up front with you, here's what you can do: Call the references at a time when you are likely to reach their voice mail -- early in the morning, late at night, during the lunch hour. Leave a simple message: "Harry has given your name as a reference. Please call me back if he was outstanding." If Harry was outstanding, I guarantee that four out of five of his references will call back almost immediately. However, if four out of five of his references don't call back, no libelous statements have been made, no confidences have been broken, no laws have been violated, but four out of five of Harry's references have sent a strong message for you to think about.

So yes, I always look for the terrific "10s," but I also trust the results of this test. Asking a person's references to return your phone call is an extremely useful practice. It's a bit of unconventional wisdom that requires minimal time and realizes maximum results. And it's infinitely less disruptive than having your company endure three years' worth of bad behavior by one employee.

Dr. Pierre Mornell is the author of Hiring Smart! from Ten Speed Press. He is a psychiatrist and consultant who helps companies evaluate and select high-level executives.