Where Have All The Scruples Gone?

Star Registry Web Site

On the way to the gym this morning I heard a radio ad that I’ve heard several times before. It’s from the International Star Registry. It’s a mind-boggling scam.

These people offer the chance to “name a star”, and tout it as a “great gift” — “a gift that will last a lifetime”. And, “your gift will be registered in book form in the US Copyright Office.” In some weird sort of way, it almost seems like a nice idea.

You can almost imagine taking your honey out to Lookout Point on a clear starry night, pointing up just to the right of the Big Dipper and saying, “Look, Dear, there’s the Candy Smith star. I had it named just for you.” And as you melt together into the evening, it all seems so perfect.

But it’s a complete lie. Take a quick look at the web site’s FAQ. Aside from several questions about how to order, there’s the real meat of the matter. Q: Am I buying the star? A: No. We do not own the star, so we cannot sell it to you.

More importantly: Q: Will the scientific community recognize my star name? A: No. We are a private company that provides Gift Packages. Astronomers will not recognize your name because your name is published only in our Star catalog. We periodically print a book called Your Place in the Cosmos © which lists the stars that we have named.

So let me see if I have this right. For my $59 – $159 I get a certificate from you that says you named some random star in my name. You will occasionally print out a list of these names and send it to the copyright office (as any author can). And that’s it. No one will recognize this name, and all I have to show for it is a credit card receipt and a piece of paper.

It begs an important question: how do these people sleep at night?

The International Star Registry sold something they don’t own, have no inventory of, have an unlimited supply of, and have essentially no cost-of-goods-sold. It’s raw profit. I could also print out a piece of paper that says “This star over here is the CLWill star”, send it in at essentially no cost to the US Copyright Office, and I’d have the exact same effect.

This is an incredibly inventive scam. But it begs an important question: how do these people sleep at night?

I can understand how some low life came up with this idea over a couple of beers. I can even understand that there are people in this world like this scammer who live for separating fools from their money. I don’t like that, but I realize they exist.

What I wonder about is all the other people in the organization. This can’t be a small endeavor. There are people answering the phone. People entering things into the database. People handling the accounting, payroll, taxes, etc. People developing the ads and the web site. There must be a dozen or more people involved in this scam.

It turns my stomach from 2,000 miles away

How do they all sleep? They all must know the ridiculousness of the deal. They must all start out chuckling at the people who order. But at some point it has to turn sickening. There just has to be silly levels of turnover as people tire of cheating their fellow man (or woman).

Then I wonder, what is this organizational culture like? Do people cheat and connive each other into promotions and raises? Do they stab each other in the back? If they scam strangers for a living, they must treat each other like crap.

On a personal level, can they really look themselves in the mirror every morning as they head off to work, and think this is really OK? Do they go to church and talk about “doing unto others”? What do they teach their children about work ethics? It turns my stomach from 2,000 miles away (they’re in Illinois), I can’t imagine being involved in such a thing.

And as I’m typing this blog entry, I got a new piece of spam from the “Heritage Registry of Who’s Who”. The exact same scam, in different clothes. Add in the incessant diet drug ads that proliferate this time of year, and the incredibly annoying ads for Enzyte, “for natural male enhancement” and you wonder, where have all the scruples gone?

A Real Resolution

Calendar from 12-31 to 1-1

People often make New Year’s Resolutions — personal goals to remake themselves. Most often these involve quitting smoking (as I did 30+ years ago) or losing weight (as I need to) or other self-improvement goals. But they almost never involve their work life. I’m here to beseech you otherwise.

This seems like the best possible time for me to stress the importance of taking stock of your work life and to prod you to fix what is broken. This is an exercise that most of us never do, and the arbitrary ticking of the calendar is as good a time as any to prompt you to do so.

Most of us who work in organizations recognize what is wrong: we roll our eyes as the same silly mistakes get made year in and year out, we chuckle knowingly at every Dilbert cartoon wondering how Scott Adams was in our last staff meeting, and we marvel that the same idiots continue to ply their trade without being called to account. Yet who is the bigger fool, those who continue the folly or those who participate time and again and expect a different outcome?

Who is the bigger fool, those who continue the folly or those who participate time and again and expect a different outcome?

I can’t begin to imagine what is wrong in your work situation, but unless you are very lucky, something is broken. Perhaps the problem is a lousy boss. Or a terrible co-worker. Or a failing project. Or just a job you hate. Now is a great time to deal with the problem.

Here are some suggestions on concrete actions you can take:

  • Speak up when someone behaves inappropriately
  • Personally take on a failing part of the project
  • Call attention to things that are broken
  • Challenge stupidity in all its forms
  • Never contribute less than your personal best
  • Get another job

These are hard. They take personal strength. Some require almost heroic effort. All require resolve (hence the term: resolution). But they can all make a distinct difference.

Life is too short to hate what you do, or to settle for second best. Take the opportunity of a new year to fix what’s broken in your world. Don’t let another year go by in a situation you will regret. What’s the point of quitting smoking if all it does is have you live longer in a job you hate?

Never Expect Change, You Won’t Be Disappointed

It’s an ancient theme of comedians, as old as comedy itself. It goes something like:

  • A woman marries a man expecting he will change, but he doesn’t.
  • A man marries a woman expecting that she won’t change, and she does.

It’s told many different ways, but the essence is that many people have a very different expectations of change.

In the workplace, I have often encountered managers with unrealistic expectations of change. So often that I have developed a really simple rule of thumb with respect to change:

Never expect anyone to change, you will never be disappointed and you will be occasionally pleasantly surprised.

Rather hash, yes. But it has never failed me.

I have seen a hundred managers who overlook, or proactively ignore, repugnant behavior in employees. It seems they hope that some miracle, or a passing visit from Dr. Phil, will get the employee to see the error of their ways and make a wholesale change in their life. It doesn’t happen.

Now I’m not talking about people who won’t make a new pot of coffee when they drain the last cup, or who break wind in the elevator. I’m talking about more serious things. Like people who treat others like they are put on this earth for their convenience. Or can’t construct a sentence let alone a convincing argument. Or are so criminally disorganized that they can’t find anything on their haystack of a desk.

Expecting people to change their essence is just asking for a letdown.

No, these things are at the core of who these people are, and they simply can’t change them. Expecting people to change their essence is just asking for a letdown.

What’s worse is when people hire people with clear, fatal flaws and delude themselves into thinking they will fix them. “Not to worry, I’m a superhero manager, I can fix that.” Betcha can’t.

I ought to know. I did it myself… more than once.

In one case, I took a superstar individual contributor, a true unmitigated genius — one of the smartest two or three people I’ve ever met (and I’ve met some of the smartest people on the planet) — and promoted him to be a manager for me. He is really a special intellect, you see, so I was more than intrigued to see if I could get him to grow out of his quite abusive behavior of others, and his incredibly condescending tone, and his unrealistic expectation of others, and his subsurface misogeny, and … you get the idea.

As it turns out I couldn’t change him. He was a disaster. I narrowly avoided a lawsuit from an employee. With the advice and assistance of my HR person, I wrote a special note for his personnel file that read, in short: “This person should never be allowed to supervise others again”. [Note: He was recently mentioned in a national publication as a future CEO of a Fortune 500 company — but I digress…]

Fire them and move on.

The key point here is that I know of what I speak. There is a great deal you cannot change in people. Never expect them to change, and you won’t be disappointed. If you try once and there is no change, don’t keep beating your head against a wall. Fire them and move on.

In closing, I’m reminded of the great W. C. Fields when confronted by a woman who proclaimed “Sir, you are drunk!”. His response: “yes, madam, but you are ugly and in morning I shall be sober.” Some things just can’t be changed.

Greed by Any Other Name

Money Bundle

There is a great article in the Wall Street Journal today [Note: I believe this link is subscription-only].

The title of the article says it all: “When $70 Million is Not Enough”. It is about how a star at Goldman Sachs, aptly named Mark McGoldrick (nicknamed “Goldfinger”), quit because he felt his $70 Million in compensation in 2006 was inadequate.

I’m quite sure that the vast majority of the world is just flabbergasted by the hubris of Mr. McGoldrick. I’m sure the indignation is quite ripe. After all, even the biggest lottery winners don’t even dream of getting this much money over their lifetime, let alone as one year’s compensation. And they marvel at the fact that the island of Saint Kitts is overwhelmed by the damage done yesterday by Hurricane Dean, estimated to be over $50 Million — an amount Mr. McGoldrick could cover and still have tens of millions to spare.

But I’m not surprised. Because I’ve seen worse.

But I’m not surprised. Because I’ve seen worse.

Yes, really, I’ve seen worse. You see, I was in charge of compensation at Microsoft at the zenith of the dot-com boom. If you want to get a brain freeze, if you want to see warped values, and if you want to see upset people, you need to see extremely competitive people discuss their compensation.

I had senior people in my office griping about net worths in the magnitude of the GDPs of small countries. They pointed to others who they deemed less worthy, and complained that just being ahead of them was not enough. No, they needed to wipe the floors with them.

I had more than one executive who was on their way out the door demand, and get, millions in compensation — for what I was not sure. They stomped and moaned and complained like children until someone, anyone, would grant them what they wanted. And then they left.

I had one case where an executive threatened to start up a business that potentially would cause one small part of the company some grief. He made numerous vague, disguised threats until he was granted $30 Million in stock options. He promptly left, and started the business anyway. And now his biggest customer is Microsoft.

So, Mr. McGoldrick is disgusting, and clearly demonstrates that all that is wrong with Wall Street today. But he’s just an amateur. If he wants to really know how it’s done, perhaps he should drop me a line.

Visions of a License

Colorbyte Logo

I talk a great deal about visions. About how they should drive organizations, about what they should contain, and about the importance they have on the effectiveness of teams. I see many cases of strong, clear, focussed visions leading to great success.

And I see the opposite. I see organizations that either lack a vision, or that don’t measure operations against the vision on a regular basis. I have two examples right in front of me.

Both examples are from the software industry and both show how easy it is to get distracted from the main point of the company and off to “the plumbing”. It’s a tale of my trying, seemingly in vain, to simply purchase two different companies’ products.

Both examples show how easy it is to get distracted by “the plumbing”

I have had, since youth, a deep interest in photography. And I have owned, in recent years, a parade of better and better photo printers. When I decided to donate two of my older printers to my children’s school, I found that it was a case of “you can’t get there from here”.

You see, both printers were driven by software called a RIP (raster image processor). RIPs are sophisticated programs that control, to minute detail, the output of the printers. They insure that what you see on the screen, ends up on the printer. Sure, you can just press “print” from within your program, but for best results you use a RIP.

There are a number of these programs, and they are all absurdly expensive. The license for these two printers was several thousand dollars (ouch!). So when I decided to donate the printers, clearly I wanted to donate the RIP to drive them. I wouldn’t want the school to have to pay for them. So began my ordeal.

You see, the licensing is obtuse, and is controlled by a tiny (the size of about 6 dimes stacked up) device called a “dongle”. You need the dongle plugged into your computer to run the program. This is a silly form of copy protection. I emailed the company and explained what I wanted to do. It went south from there.

Colorbyte explained that would have to return the dongle (to Florida), pay hundreds of dollars, pay for shipping both ways, and so on. I pleaded for mercy, this was merely a donation, perhaps they would want a charitable write-off too? I exchanged 8 emails, and had five 20 minute phone calls with the sales manager. In the interim I lost, and later found the silly little dongle. I offered to handle the case in any number of ways. I even agreed eventually agreed to their terms, and they suddenly changed the terms.

Colorbyte set up so many hurdles they lost an upgrade sale

Eventually, I gave up. I convinced my local dealer to sell me the competing product at cost (and take a write-off for the balance). Colorbyte set up so many hurdles they lost an upgrade sale — and ongoing maintenance updates from the school, no doubt. And undoubtedly cost the company many times the profit they ever made on me just from the time the sales manager spent handling my case.

I’m not alone. Reading the support forums for their software, Colorbyte’s confusing and obtuse licensing, and this ridiculous little device, cost their customers hours of frustration. The dongle drives people nuts, and makes all the customers feel like criminals.

Colorbyte’s vision clearly wasn’t to create hurdles for their customers, it was surely to create the best RIP they could. But their tech support time, their sales time, and I’m sure their software development time, has been sapped by the silly paranoia about software theft. This clearly costs the company in the long run.

Adobe Logo

My other experience involves the venerable giant of the graphics software industry, Adobe. Makers of Photoshop, Illustrator, and a number of other high-end graphics arts tools, the company has been a software industry stalwart for decades. Simply put, if you are really concerned with the quality of your graphics, you use Adobe’s products.

But the company’s vision of creating the world’s best graphics software and serving the graphics professional, which has served them so well, clearly doesn’t extend down to the licensing department. Buying Adobe’s products has always been hard. And I have the wounds to prove it.

Adobe has always charged far above any comparable product for their software. And because they make the best products, people pay the price. But along with this premium strategy (high price, but you get what you pay for) should come good service, respect for your customer, and a certain amount of benefit-of-the-doubt thinking.

But, no. Adobe, you see, is paranoid too. Because their products are out of the reach of the non-professional, they get stolen. Probably a lot. So Adobe has complex licensing and authorization hoops to jump through when you buy their products. And their licensing people are ruthless, and treat every customer as a potential criminal.

Their licensing people are ruthless, and treat every customer as a potential criminal.

I’ve just hung up the phone from a 54 minute phone call with Adobe customer service. My seventh such phone call in the last month. All because I wanted to buy their latest upgrade.

But I made it hard, you see, because I recently switched from Windows to the Mac. This makes it a “cross-platform upgrade”. And apparently something really hard to do. I had to sign and fax in three different affidavits, certifying that I’m going to destroy the old versions. I had to pay for the new version in advance. And I apparently had to wait.

I placed the order and jumped through all my hoops, five weeks ago today. I still have nothing to show for it. In the meantime, I’ve called customer service seven times, each time having more hurdles tossed in front of me. All for this seemingly simple $399 purchase — a purchase every other company would let me do online and download the software immediately.

Each time I call customer service, I find that the purchase has been stopped on another bureaucrat’s desk. Each time, no one bothered to tell me. Each time, I had to call, wait on hold, wait while some poor sap in Bangalore looks up the information, only to find that somehow the purchase failed to meet some ridiculous test. Last Friday, after another hour of hoop jumping, “Jen” promised me it would be expedited, and shipped overnight. She promised to email me the status immediately. I never heard from her again.

Clearly, Adobe, like Colorbyte, has lost all profit from this sale.

Today, “Frank” spent 54 minutes looking up my order, and eventually gave me a tracking number for DHL. A number DHL says does not exist.

And amazingly, I just got a call from “Jen” at Adobe to tell me that the heavens have opened and the product has shipped. Ground, not overnight. I should see it in 7 – 10 business days. Almost seven weeks after this simple purchase was made.

Clearly, Adobe, like Colorbyte, has lost all profit from this sale. Even at the rates of customer service in India, the phone charges, overhead, and pay to “Frank” and “Jen” has to have made this sale a total loss for the company. And has left them with a thoroughly upset customer. And as the old adage goes, “a happy customer tells a friend, an unhappy customer tells everyone they know.”

Both of these companies forgot why they got into the business — to create great software.

In the end, Adobe has probably lost site of their vision, just because of all this paranoia. And all because people who wouldn’t buy the product in the first place are stealing it. There is no lost revenue here, the thieves never could afford it, and people who make their living with it happily pay for it. And perhaps, when they grow up and can afford it, since they’ve been using it, the thieves would buy it. But they have to jump through the hoops — maybe it’s easier to steal it.

Both of these companies forgot why they got into the business — to create great software. They let paranoia over come them, and let their lawyers or “compliance people” rule the day. They forgot customer service, and respect for their customer. They forgot their vision. And they are much the worse for it.

Lose the Bad Apples

Apple

Like many police departments these days, Seattle’s is under fire for the handling of a number of incidents, and the possibility that the officers overreacted. I’m not going to dive into the depths of the argument over individual cases. It is so hard to be sure of the facts, and all sides immediately jump to polar positions. No, I’m more interested in the effect this has on the department and its leadership.

Unfortunately that effect is not good. And it’s not at all assisted by the Chief, Gil Kerlikowske, who has spent the last few weeks angrily lashing out at the various review boards that have criticized the department and specifically his leadership of it. His reaction has been shrill, and embarrassing. It’s achieved a level that the only reasonable result can or should be his resignation.

But then today comes the Seattle Post-Intelligencer with an interesting article about this issue. In the article entitled “Few police officers trigger complaints” the Police Officer’s Guild (the union) attempts to shine a good light on the department.

Their main point is that, in a department of over 1200, something around 10 officers get more than three complaints a year. That’s less than 1%, they argue, and that shows this is a good department. Their point is that everyone should get their knickers out of a twist, this just isn’t that big of an issue.

To me, this is just a leadership problem

In some sense, they are right. This is a small number, and we shouldn’t overreact. However, to me, this is just a leadership problem… and a union problem.

You see, I’m a strong advocate of losing the bad apples promptly. I have always advised leaders to cut their losses, and to escort the poor performers, the troublemakers, and the bad attitudes quickly to the door. And choose again from the barrel of apples.

I always tell managers: “wouldn’t you like to be done with this problem, and have a chance at getting a superstar in the exchange?” Imagine life without the hassle of this person, and with the true possibility that you replace them with someone who could really light the place on fire. Most managers with whom I have this conversation realize the logic immediately. Their eyes glaze over and they dream of life in the post-hassle era.

I even advocate moving on from the only average performers. “Wouldn’t you want to change that C player for a chance that you could get an A+ player?” As long as you hire carefully, make decisions quickly, and cut your losses often, you’ll end up with an A team in no time.

In the case of the Seattle Police Department, my question after reading this article, is “why the heck do these officers still work there?” Move them on. Choose again from the barrel of apples.

Why the heck do these officers still work there?

I’m not advocating firing officers who get any complaints. Clearly some complaints are baseless. But when only 13% get one complaint, fewer still get two, and only 10 get three or more, the course is clear. Move them on. I don’t even care if these complaints are questionable. By the time you get three complaints, something is wrong. Where there’s smoke there’s fire.

And this is especially true when there are people lining up to be police officers. They got 1200 applicants for their last police academy class. Surely somewhere in that mod are some truly good apples.

The stickler in all this, of course, will be the Guild themselves. They have, no doubt, negotiated a terrible contract where firing someone takes years and something just short of an act of God to accomplish. They should be embarrassed themselves to be creating an environment where these bad apples can sully the reputation of the whole department.

But the lesson here is clear, if you are spending time managing the bad apples, lose them and choose another from the barrel. You will thank me for it.

How NOT to Quit

Seattle Mariners Logo

Mike Hargrove, the manager of the Seattle Mariners walked into work this morning as said “today is my last day as manager of the Seattle Mariners”. To say this was a shock would be a vast understatement.

The thing that was most curios about the announcement was his reasoning. He said: “It was just getting harder and harder for me to get up for the games each day. I still could, it just took me longer than I would like.” When asked if he had “lost the fire for baseball”, he quickly replied “no, that’s not it.” In fact, other than this curious problem of getting motivated, he said essentially nothing. He’s just leaving.

Aside from my admittedly partisan view of the team, the thing that most bothers me about this is what it says about the organization and/or Mr. Hargrove. The team insists that they didn’t push him, and in fact begged him to stay. What team wouldn’t? Finding a manager before the All-Star Break is just a nightmare. So that leaves us with Mr. Hargrove.

Lacking a family member in immediate peril of death, there’s really no excuse for this behavior.

Lacking a family member in immediate peril of death, there’s really no excuse for this behavior. Unless the working conditions had become terrible, the situation so untenable, that he simply couldn’t walk into work, there’s just no way to justify leaving a job on 24 hours notice — especially a job like this. This job has annual contracts, a defined start and end to each year. What could possibly so bad that you couldn’t just grind it out for the balance of the year?

The most curious thing is that the team is hot. They’ve won seven straight. They are 11 games over .500 baseball. They’re on track for their best record in the last 5 years. He turned the team around, he’s just starting to look like a guy who knows what he’s doing. Then he quits. Ugh.

I’m sure we’ll find out a lot more about this in detail in a few weeks.

I’m sure we’ll find out a lot more about this in detail in a few weeks. He’ll eventually tell somebody the true story. And I sure do hope that it’s because the management is totally screwed up and the organization is a mess. At least, there’d be a good reason.

Because if that’s not it, it shows an incredible lack of class, judgment, and guts. I’d like to believe he’s a better guy that that.

Update: After listening to his press conference, and post-game interview (they won, BTW), I’m convinced what happened was an ultimatum. I’m willing to bet dollars to donuts that Mr. Hargrove deeply objected to some move/trade (trading Ichiro? bringing back Ken Griffey Jr.?) and said, “if you do that, I’m outta here.” They did it, he’s gone.

After the trade deadline, and whatever move is announced, I’m sure we’ll hear Mr. Hargrove’s real reason for leaving. Ugh, again. I hate this kind of thing. It just ruins the entire organization’s morale…

Too Many Dealers, Not Enough Customers

Car in a Shopping Cart

Here’s a quiz for you: who has more retail outlets — Starbucks or General Motors (GM)?

If you listen to all the late night comics with their shtick on Starbucks and how there’s one on every corner, you think you know the answer. Well, you’d be wrong. Starbucks has about 6,300 company-owned stores and GM has almost 7,000 dealerships. Wow…

Now this is just a little unfair, Starbucks has another couple thousand franchise locations inside places like grocery stores and theme parks. And GM owns virtually none of their stores. But the fact that the numbers are even in the same ball park is stunning to me.

I wrote a couple of months ago about what a terrible experience buying a car is, and the toll it takes on the people who have to do it for a living (see that piece here). And about how the differences between the retail experiences can be easily seen here.

It’s a sick business that someone needs to change.

Simply put, buying a car is the worst shopping experience that you can have. Bar none. And people with any scruples find it impossible to work in the business for very long. It’s a sick business that someone needs to change.

I don’t mean to pick on GM just for the excess of dealers. A piece in the Wall Street Journal today (subscription-only link here) points out that none of the US automakers are immune from this issue. All the “big three” have well over 2-1/2 times the number of dealers per point of market share of Toyota, for example. Perhaps that (and this) explains why Toyota is doing so well, and eating Detroit’s lunch.

I think this excess of dealers is one good reason for the problem. Too many dealers chasing too few customers. And it leads to a fetid culture of sleeze-ball sales tactics, terrible service, and lousy margins. It’s little more than vultures preying on the few customers there are.

Starbucks has nothing in their store that costs over $250, and the vast majority of sales are under $10. I don’t know for certain, but I would have to imagine that their average transaction is in the $5 range. This just begs for a lot of outlets, to make the impulse purchase easy.

Why on earth do they need so many stores?

GM, on the other hand, probably has an average transaction around $10,000. I don’t know many people who decide on a whim to just drop by the Cadillac store and pop for a new $60,000 Escalade. Or stop in for a quick brake job. Why on earth do they need so many stores (or brands, but that’s another story)?

If the new purchasers of Chrysler, Cerberus Capital Management LP, want to really make an impact on the car business, they could start here. And rumor has it, they are going to — by combining all the Dodge, Chrysler, and Jeep dealers together. It’s a good start.

Forgive the Hiatus

Champagne

If you’ve followed along with this blog, you know a couple of things:

  • It’s past time for some sort of recognition for the one year anniversary, and
  • I’ve been quite remiss in posting over the last month or so.

As to the former, I say: “bah humbug!” I have grown weary of reading all the celebratory posts from people trumpeting their “blogiversary” as if it really mattered.

Suffice it to say, if you like doing this whole blogging thing, the first year flew by. If you did it for all the wrong reasons (because you’d become rich, or famous, or quoted, or perhaps even noticed) then it probably was a year of pure torture and pretty soon it will fade into obscurity. I like to think that for me, it was the first of these…

As to the lack of meaningful content herein over the last several weeks, I’d like to proclaim a number of really good excuses. To wit:

  • I came to the aid of a fellow blogger who, under relentless denial-of-service attacks, had to move immediately from one blogging platform to another. This resulted in herculean efforts to design, move, convert, and deploy an entirely new solution in record time. It went off with nary a hitch, and I’m pleased to note that the bad guys are being stopped at the gate (to the tune of 10,000+ attacks a day).
  • My main Windows computer breathed its last breath, a result of euthanasia. I’ve spent the last month making the final move of my life from Windows to the Mac — a sort of conversion that, like those of a spiritual nature, involves great joy and discovery coupled with several rites of passage. I plan to write much more about this experience in a more appropriate forum to be announced later.

  • Our eldest son just graduated from high school, and that comes with an inordinate amount of anticipation, preparation, visitation, celebration, and recuperation. This was a wonderful time for us all (dampened only slightly by a cruel theft of the diploma…), but one that is good to have behind us.

None of this is really justification for my lack of posting here, but it might explain to those around me the incredible lack of sleep I’ve had over the past month or two. And it does indicate why there has been at least a little to celebrate around here.

So, dear reader, please forgive the unintended hiatus, and stay tuned… I promise a reinvigorated effort in short order.

Are superstars worth the pain?

Standout

Once in a while, as a manager, you will be fortunate enough to have a team member who is a superstar. These people are not just above average, they are vastly better. They are smarter, more driven, highly focused, and they get far more work done than the rest. It often seems like they are just coasting through it, but miraculously they achieve well beyond the others.

If you are fortunate enough to have a superstar working for you, it usually comes with both benefits and curses. Certainly it can be a joy to have someone you can count on to excel every time you give them as task. As a manager, you dream about having the kind of team members who will just take what you give them, and exceed your wildest dreams every time. Get more than one of these people and you think you’ve died and gone to manager’s heaven.

It is common for superstars to be a royal pain when in a group.

That is, until it comes time to work as a team. There’s something about superstars that makes them innately incapable of “playing well with the other children”. Perhaps it’s their low tolerance for busywork, structure, and stupidity. It may be that they know they are superior. Maybe it’s their habit of picking and eating their ear wax… Whatever it is, it certainly is common for superstars to be a royal pain when you try to get them to work in a group.

I’ve seen dozens of superstars. Microsoft seemed to attract, select for, groom, and coddle them. I worked with some of the brightest minds in the world at Microsoft, and many people who I would consider well worth the title of superstar. I have managed more than my fair share of them. And I have the battle scars to prove it.

I made the mistake at one point of promoting one of the brightest minds at the company to be a team leader for me. One of the few pure geniuses I’ve ever encountered, his Ivy League degrees, Rhodes scholarship, and meteoric rise at the company couldn’t rescue his team from his short temper, low tolerance for mistakes, and his blatant misogyny.

On his watch, a team I’d carefully recruited and nurtured for months was disintegrating before my eyes. After numerous angry departures, threats of legal action, and failed attempts to counsel him and get the team back on track I removed him from a leadership position. And since I believe strongly in helping my fellow managers, I added “this person should never be allowed to manage people” to his performance review. He was recently mentioned in a prominent business publication as a likely future CEO of the company…

But, I digress. In this case, clearly the pain of a superstar wasn’t worth it. It was really my fault, I should have far more carefully considered his management skills before I promoted him out to a role that he wasn’t suited for. The larger question is: is it ever worth it to have superstars on the team?

The short answer is, yes, superstars are worth the pain.

The short answer is, yes, superstars are worth the pain. But only if they are in a role that suits them, and only if you can find a way to control their impact on the rest of the team.

The issues with the rest of the team are many. Very often people resent working with superstars. Even if the manager is careful to not show favoritism, people often perceive a bias in the superstar’s direction. How, after all, could they be doing so well, getting so much done, and attracting so much attention? They can’t stand watching someone else finish the task in half the time, and I don’t blame them.

But more often than not, superstars do get recognition and attention from management. And that just rubs some people the wrong way. Especially when it seems like their gift is not learned or earned, just that — a gift.

If you put superstars in charge, more often than not it ends up being a nightmare for everyone.

And if you put superstars in charge, more often than not they get frustrated, with the less competent members of the team, with the progress of the project, and especially with the bureaucracy — the processes and procedures inherent to management. It ends up being a nightmare for everyone, the team, you the manager, and even the superstar themselves.

So how do you take advantage of the seemingly infinite resource that a superstar can provide? Simple: put them in their sweet spot, their area of excellence, and do whatever it takes to make them successful. Usually that means giving them what they need and staying out of their way. And regular and earnest praise helps as well.

Superstars are worth the effort. But you have to recognize what they are good at, and let them wow you at it. Don’t mistake excellence in on thing as excellence in everything. This helps to avoid the Peter Principle and saves everyone’s sanity.