One of my favorite things is to watch truly skilled people at work. Anyone can feel the magic when a gifted musician or a great speaker moves a crowd. But I see it too in watching a deft programmer or a skilled electrician debug a complex problem. A genuine master of their craft is a joy to behold. The way they make it look effortless, the way they instinctively think two steps ahead, the way they move through motions they’ve done thousands of times before.
Malcolm Gladwell posited that it takes 10,000 hours to build expertise. Many dispute his claim, including the authors of the study upon which it was based. But watching someone truly skilled at their life’s work makes me wonder if the estimate was simply too low.
I’ve been fortunate to work with some of the world’s best at the top of their games, in an array of disciplines. I’ve been in the room to see some of the best and brightest invent some of the seminal technologies of our age. I’ve been in the wings to witness up close performances that gave crowds of thousands shared chills. It’s been one of the gifts of my life to experience true experts in person, doing what they do so very well.
Kevin was one of those people. He was talented, perhaps innately so. He worked smoothly and quickly, without any kind of wasted motion. He was creative, imaginative, and fearless. He tackled jobs with apparent confidence that terrified others. He completed his work vastly faster than those around him. The results were so impressive that it sometimes seemed like the whole company’s very existence depended on Kevin and his magic.
Then there was the one day that Kevin elicited a round of applause. A standing ovation. From the entire company. It was the day he was fired. And that’s what this is all about.
This is Leading Smart, the show about Managing in the Brainpower Age. It’s a field guide to the joys and challenges of leading and working in the modern workplace. I’m Chris Williams, your guide to the stories and ideas that I hope will inspire you to be a better leader in the world of knowledge work.
This episode begins a series on firing. On how and when to let go. In this episode we’ll look at how to handle that very special person. This is Episode Sixteen: Superstar.
As I noted in episode one, The Hit Man, my experience with car stereos goes back decades. In the early years of this century I returned to that world to help build a business at the top of the game. We worked on the finest cars the world had to offer, the best of America, Europe, and Asia, even the exotics. Adding in world-class audio and video equipment for executives, celebrities, and the automobile elite. Much of the work was truly stunning, and people paid dearly for the privilege of the rolling art we created.
Kevin was one of our most gifted installers. He made magic in a car interior like few people I’ve ever seen. He nonchalantly tore into six-figure cars with little more than a dozen miles on them. He removed entire interiors, handcrafted artful matching components, and made it all look and sound amazing. The result was often better than the factory could have imagined. And he did it all, even the heaviest and hardest of it, by himself.
Kevin worked single-handedly, because Kevin was a jerk. He verbally abused into submission anyone assigned to help. He loudly derided other projects he passed by. He belittled everyone else’s work and skills. Especially those he viewed as rivals to his throne atop installer mountain.
Kevin’s attitude was corrosive to the entire shop. We had more than a dozen other skilled installers. Most were generous with their time, support, and wisdom. Teamwork was the norm in the shop for everyone — except Kevin.
Kevin also single-handedly corrupted the company’s image. He made sure everyone, especially the customers, knew his work. That no one else could possibly live up to his miracles. As a result, customers insisted he do their work. They told the friends they referred to us to do so as well. Kevin had turned the company into his very own. And by implication slandered the rest of the team, calling the company’s hard-won reputation into question.
The whole organization seemed to believe it. Salespeople would steer their biggest and toughest jobs to Kevin. They would complain if the job got assigned elsewhere. They panicked over minor mistakes, and whined “Kevin would have gotten it right”. This produced a backlog behind Kevin while others were idle. The president privately wondered if the whole company hinged on Kevin and his magic.
Attempts to manage Kevin never worked. He ignored constructive criticism. When given firm mandates to moderate his behavior, he gestured toward cooperation, but soon regressed. Often only worse. The mood of the entire shop spiraled down into a cesspool of bad attitudes and short tempers.
The last straw came when Kevin overplayed his hand. He demanded a massive raise, even though he was already the highest paid installer. He asserted the company would die without him. The president saw his own decades of work flash before his eyes.
I made the contrarian case that Kevin was not the asset he seemed. That though his work was highly profitable, it wasn’t scalable. We’d never grow the business on the backs of a single Kevin. We’d be lucky to keep the rest of the team, let alone scale them up. His poisonous effect was not the backbone of the company, it was likely to be its downfall. Lots of tough discussion later, we agreed that, rather than elevate Kevin, we’d let him go.
The president and I fired Kevin together. Stunned, yet ever confident, he stormed out with “you’ll regret this” and began packing his tools into his pickup. He flailed and cursed at anyone who would listen, most frozen into silence. As he stomped down the stairs and into the loaded pickup, a slow clap began. I watched in awe as the entire shop applauded as he drove off.
Within days, really just hours, the entire company was different. It became a happy place, a joy to work in. Yes, we lost the odd customer who followed Kevin. And we had to hire two more people to keep up the pace. But everyone else got better as a result, rising to the challenge. Some took initiative and reorganized the shop for more effective teamwork, a move Kevin had long thwarted. The new recruits were quickly up to speed, thanks to the help and guidance of more senior members. And in the long run, firing Kevin was one of the best personnel moves the company ever made.
I’ve been fortunate to work with a wide variety of superstars. At Microsoft we seemed to attract them, as we offered the opportunity to be a star on one of the world’s biggest stages.
Superstars happen in virtually any discipline, from artists to plumbers, but they seem to be especially prevalent in the world of knowledge workers. Something about the work draws out superstar behavior. The often-vague metrics for success amplify minor differences. The difficulty of quantifying the work leads to the elevation of outliers, good and bad.
The world of computer software has a long history of superstars. There is a deeply embedded myth of the “10x developer”. Someone who can create ten times the code or do it in one-tenth the time. Along with this myth come apocryphal stories of a lone genius developing entire complex systems in their basement over a weekend. Later, less heroic versions of the myth say what really happens is these superstars unlock ten times the potential of those around them.
Like most mythical creatures, the 10x developer is an amalgam of reality and hope. I’ve worked with and managed hundreds of developers, many of them the best in their field. Several were widely seen as 10x developers. They were gifted, to be sure, but mostly with little more than clear vision, deep experience, and palpable passion for their craft. They see a problem clearly and have the drive and talent to execute on their idea without hesitation. Their “magic” is almost always born of something I’ve talked a lot about here: clarity of vision.
On the downside, I’ve seen these 10x developers leave mountains of debris in their wake. In their drive to execute, or often simply impress, they take shortcuts. That system they created in the basement over the weekend? It’s held together with bailing wire and duct tape. It makes for a great demo, but to make it ready for the real world takes a lot of effort. Usually by the regular team who works hard to build things that last. Often by rebuilding the idea from scratch.
I’ve also seen these superstars leave behind ten times the organizational damage. Their behavior elevates tension, creates factions, and fosters resentment. Then they storm off for the next big adventure surveying the carnage with a flourish that often rings with “my work here is done.”
So, be careful not to elevate superstars without holding them to the same standards used for everyone. They don’t have mystical powers, they can’t do ten times the work of mere mortals, and you shouldn’t pretend they do. Celebrate them when they excel and judge them fairly when they don’t.
A few rare superstars are kind, thoughtful, and generous team players. But those are far from the majority. Most come loaded with personality traits that make them difficult to work with.
Frequently superstars are lone wolves, who work best — or only — by themselves. Whether their fundamental lack of social skills is a cause or effect is open for debate. But they interact poorly with others, either snapping at teammates or not communicating in the slightest. They would rather be left alone to work their magic.
Being a lone wolf makes superstars incapable of working on projects too large for a single person. They simply can’t be trusted to work well with others. We were commissioned to build an SUV limo for a world-famous executive. It would be a signature project, a benchmark for the company, that would have benefited immensely from Kevin’s skill. But the time schedule made it a four-person job. We dared not use Kevin and risk an implosion.
For scheduling purposes, superstars tend to be “black boxes”, difficult to understand or predict. Will this be one of those “weekend miracles”, or should we plan on it taking a rational length of time? With Kevin, we eventually learned to plan for a normal schedule, because the miracles were so random.
Superstars are also hoarders. Of information, certainly, like project requirements or status. But more crucially, they hoard tools and techniques. To ensure their status as a superstar, they can’t allow others behind the curtain. Kevin’s upholstery work was artful, but since he never shared exactly how he achieved it, no one else could match it.
That may well have been for the best. Superstars often use tricks and shortcuts that help them work their magic, but that can trip up those behind them. When a work of Kevin’s would roll into the shop for repair, it was often a mystery that required extensive diagnostic time. Not infrequently we’d find clear violations of standard practice that were potentially dangerous. Kevin hand-waved these rules as “only for beginners”.
Superstars thrive on dependency. They love being the key player upon which success is hinged. It only makes their mythical powers more dominant. They crave it, their ego relies on it. Your organization dies by it. If they get sick, or leave, or decide to hold you hostage, the project — or even your whole organization — can be endangered.
And, of course, there’s the arrogance. With all the laurels thrown their way, it’s not difficult to understand how they got there, but it’s rare for a superstar to not be a diva. To believe that they simply can do no wrong. That no one else could possibly measure up. And to demand outsized treatment or compensation. Kevin received a myriad of perks including choice of workshop space, time for personal or pet projects, and seemingly limitless unexcused absences. It was never enough.
This special treatment grates on everyone else. Peers tend to one of two reactions: either they are bitter and resentful, or they become tender fish who try to swim in the warm wash of the superstar’s aura. The rivals earn the superstar’s derision, or blatant sabotage. The sycophants only enhance the superstar’s ego and make their effect on the culture that much more toxic.
All told, when you have a superstar, even the most uninitiated leader can find themselves wondering if the benefits are worth the cost. Hold that thought.
Up to this point, we’ve been discussing the superstar as individual contributor. The frontline worker who gets things done, although in seemingly miraculous fashion. But what happens when they excel long enough? They get promoted of course. To a manager.
I had a superstar program manager. He was a brilliant man, a Rhodes Scholar, and an ivy league summa cum laude graduate. He was quick, creative, and full of energy. Though he was gruff and abrasive, after years of brilliance as an individual contributor, I put him in charge of a large project. Within weeks, it imploded.
He demanded that his team work insane hours. He was derisive and abusive to his subordinates. He changed his mind on a whim, vehemently denying ever charting the previous course. He said heinous things in meetings, often blatantly misogynistic. His employees were beating a path to my door with complaints that he was drunk with power.
I counselled. I corrected. I mediated. I brought in a coach. I did everything in my playbook to help him be a better leader. None of it worked. It only got worse, with his lashing out at me.
On a side note, this experience highlighted that the promotion from individual contributor to manager is the most important and delicate move many people make in their career. My fascination with this transition remains today. We’ll discuss this more in a future episode.
Eventually I removed him from his role and back to a senior program manager. That performance review meeting, while not resulting in anything being thrown, was ugly. At the insistence of my HR advisor, I added an explicit note to his review: this person should not be allowed to supervise others.
Years later, he appeared on the cover of a national magazine as a potential candidate for the CEO of Microsoft.
Whether they are a manager or an individual contributor, recognizing a superstar’s impact is just the first part of the question. How do you decide if the benefit of a superstar is worth the organizational cost? And, if you decide to move on, how do exactly do you do that?
These are the crucial questions, each worthy of an entire episode. Unfortunately, they’ll need to wait. Next time, we’ll look at the other end of the spectrum. The poor performer. How do you fairly and reasonably judge poor performance? How do you distinguish the unremarkable from the truly unsatisfactory?
Once we explore the two ends of the performance spectrum, I’ll dedicate an episode to how you make the difficult decision to let go. And then we’ll have an episode on how exactly you go about firing people. As I noted from episode one, I’ve done a lot of it.
Until then, work on recognizing the good and the great. Be wary of celestial infernos. Few superstars give off as much light as they do heat.
Leading Smart is from me, Chris Williams. You can find out more about the show and discover other resources for leaders at my web site, CLWill.com.
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That’s it for this episode. In the next episode we’ll take a look at the bottom of the barrel. It’s called “Bottom Feeder”. I hope you’ll listen. Until then, please remember that each of the several dozen decisions you make today are part of Leading Smart.