A few times lately the perennial problem of the high performer with a bad attitude has come up in mentoring sessions with members of my Vistage CEO peer group.
It is curious how the very mention of the problem can raise a rueful smile and a knowing nod of the head. How many times do we have to face up to this problem before we take action?
The leader needs to take action before the problem becomes truly corrosive. I know of one situation where a high performer has failed a drugs test. If the status quo is allowed to continue then other people in the team can logically assume that that behaviour is permitted, or at worst, there is a blind eye turned towards it so we might as well safely do the same.
But there is a caveat. I recall that my old sales mentor, Phil Copp, the sage of Wythenshawe (which is a place in Manchester by the way) was consistently the highest sales performer in the company. On the other hand, he was probably difficult and at times impossible to manage.
He could be the leader of the awkward squad, he was acerbic, he certainly didn’t suffer fools gladly, and he knew that what he was doing didn’t always conform to the demands of the company. On the other hand, he was dedicated, loyal, committed and always worked for the best solution for his customers and the business.
Many people could have said that he had a bad attitude but in truth he was actually a maverick. Vistage speaker Lee Thayer says that leaders need to have virtuosi around them and Phil was certainly a virtuoso.
On the other hand in my days running an engineering company my colleague hired a salesman for an area in the Midlands. I asked him about the newcomer and he said that everything he had discovered about his sales ability was excellent and his experience was just what we needed. I asked what sort of personality was he and he said: “Horrible!".
My colleague (an accountant by the way) felt that the newcomer’s experience and ability would overcome his objectionable persona. He lasted about six weeks during which he upset most of the internal staff and we started to have customers calling us to say: “Don’t let that idiot come here again” and other similar compliments.
So what is answer to the vexed question of what to do with that high performing individual with a truly bad attitude? However painful it may be the only real solution is to manage them out before the situation around them deteriorates. However, the leader needs to watch out that mavericks are not tainted with the allegation that their behaviour is a result of a bad attitude.
US Vistage speaker Ed Ryan asks who does it take us eighteen months to get rid of someone we interviewed for90 minutes? Shakespeare said in Macbeth: “If t’were done, t’were better done quickly” and he knew what he was talking about.
Sometimes we need people around us who are not always easy to manage, who are not necessarily malleable, but who can and will contribute something that is a little different and which can make a big difference.
PS I have in the past described the high performer with bad attitude as an internal terrorist. When we remember 9/11 and the attacks in London, Paris, Manchester and many more it would be both inappropriate and insensitive to use that word in the context of business. However, the thrust of the argument still stands.
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