Dealing With a Prima Donna - What Would You Do?

By Carl Robinson, Ph.D., © 2009

Jane Carter is the CEO of a 150 person, 5-year-old technology company that has been growing at a 20% rate each year. About one year ago they recruited John, a star sales guy, to work for Bob, V.P. of Sales. John is a true rainmaker. He has boosted the sales numbers and the whole company knows it and loves him for it, especially now that the economy is in a deep recession.

Unfortunately, as his numbers have increased his cockiness has increased even more. In fact, he has at times been outright condescending and abusive to anyone he thinks is not performing as well as he thinks they should or, in the case of administrative support, they donít jump when he demands. Recently, he was easily overheard yelling at a customer service staff member, ďWhatís the matter with you. This is important. Do it now and do it right!Ē Alan, V.P. of Customer service, had complained to Bob previously about John and has had enough. He wants Bob to fire John. Bob is equally upset with John but knows firing him isnít that simple. Bob realizes he needs to discuss this with Jane before taking any action. He meets with Jane, reviews with her whatís happening, outlines a couple possible solutions and asks her for advice.

This is an all too familiar occurrence. Most executives have had to deal with more than one John in their careers. Bob and Jane are caught in a classic bind. They donít want to get rid of him (kill the goose who is laying all those golden eggs), but they know that heís having a negative impact on morale, not to mention, behaving in a way that is not consistent with their stated corporate values (behavior norms). They realize that although his sales numbers are blowing the roof off, if morale plummets, the bottom line could well be damaged. They know that it costs about 10 times as much to bring in new business than it does to retain existing business. Thus, if Johnís behavior increases employee turnover, especially in customer service, his action could endanger existing business that would more than offset his high sales numbers.

Donít fool yourself and believe that employees will put up with John for long just to help the company grow. You simply canít bribe top employees enough to put up with jerks. High performing employees know that they are in demand and will leave to find greener pastures.  An even worse situation will occur as youíll be left with lower performers. Not a recipe for ongoing success.

What would you do?

My suggestion: You first need to determine if Johnís behavior is a long-standing unchangeable trait (does he have a history of being a jerk?) or are these behaviors that he can change with effort. Finding the answers to that will help you decide which tact to take and, most importantly, buy you some time with disgruntled employees and to possibly make contingency arrangements, e.g., begin a confidential retained search for a replacement.

1)  Jane and Bob both (to drive the point home and to show solidarity) must bring John in to discuss the situation. Bob, since he is Johnís boss, needs to lead the discussion. The conversation should go something like this:

ďJohn, you clearly are a terrific sales person. We love your numbers and want you to continue being successful. However, there is a big problem. Weíve had too many complaints from other employees about how you are treating them. Most recently, for example, you were easily overheard yelling at Susie Ė ĎWhatís the matter with you? This is important. Do it now and do it right!í That type of behavior is not consistent with our core values and cannot continue even if you are in the right about her dropping the ball. There are other ways to deal with problems than by yelling at and berating people.

2)  Is this description of your behavior a surprise and how do you think it should be handled?Ē

How John responds will help you know what to do.

Response A) If he is overly defensive, makes up excuses for why he does what he does and says something like, ďIf they would only do their jobs better, I wouldnít have to yell at them,Ē then itís highly unlikely he will change, even under threat of being fired.

Response B). If he owns up to his behavior and asks to be given the chance to make changes, then itís possible that he may change. However, in my experience, he will need help, because he probably doesnít have sufficient emotional dexterity and self-control or enough alternative behavior strategies to behave in a more effective manner. He will need to learn how to handle his emotions better and acquire new interpersonal skills.

With Response A, you will need to either move John out of the company or, if you have no ready replacement, carve a place for him where he will have less contact with others and where he can do what he does best, sell. This may require a change in the organizationís structure.  Youíll probably need to give him his own Admin Assistant Ė one with a thick skin, and pay him or her dearly to put up with John. Bob will need to meet with John on a regular basis to keep him focused and in the loop while separating him from everyone else as much as possible. The rest of the organization will understand why youíve done this and be mollified Ė for the short-term. However, in the long run this tactic may undermine your core values because you are, in effect, condoning his behavior. My guess is that he will, within a year, move to another company. In the meantime, youíve bought yourself some time to begin a confidential search to recruit a replacement.

For response B, you will need to clearly define what type of behavior you expect and set a time frame for improving with periodic status checks. There has to be follow up and accountability. Also, generally, if an individual has offended others, he will need to apologize in some manner or the offended parties will not give him a chance to regain their support and trust. Understandably, apologizing is the hardest step for any executive but absolutely necessary. He will also need to ask for their support while he learns new skills. In my experience, most people want to be supportive because we all know we could be in their shoes and progress benefits everyone Ė especially with a sales star like John.

John will also need some developmental coaching to learn new strategies, keep him accountable and provide him with the necessary emotional support. He needs someone to both push him and cheer him on. Changing and learning new behaviors takes time, a minimum of six months, usually longer. As in Response A, you canít be naÔve. While you are supporting John in his development, you should develop contingency plans just in case he doesnít progress.

If Response B works, youíve spent a modest amount of money (on coaching), much less than it would cost to recruit a replacement, to save a top performer. In addition, he will appreciate working for you even more because you helped him over a major hurdle and to acquire new skills that will help him be even more successful in the future. If John pulls this off well, he will also be modeling for the organization that everyone has room to grow and that itís ok to admit youíre not perfect. Lastly, you will reaffirm for the organization that your company values are real and that you are willing to invest in developing people. Keep in mind that the number one reason people stay with companies is not how much they are paid but by how much the company helps them grow in their careers.

Now it's your turn. What would you do? Email me with your suggestions/alternatives and I'll post them on my website.