Trading Places

Episode #18
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It was a long open office with cubicles two deep on either side. The west wall was all windows. Down the middle of the long hallway, on one side were yarmulkes, on the other side were hijabs. In this living metaphor for the Middle East the team got along famously well.

When I was the Director of Development for Microsoft, I had a broad range of disparate responsibilities. There was a team that researched, evaluated, and disseminated best practices in programming, testing, and documenting software. There was a team that developed a number of internal tools used across the company. And there was this team, that translated Windows and other products into Arabic and Hebrew.

This team reported to me mostly because they were orphans. Their task was complicated, and they needed to be close to the Windows and Office teams. But they were not so important that the core teams wanted to deal with them. So, they reported to me.

It was a good group lead by a great leader. He was an Iraqi who had escaped through Kuwait and lead his family across the desert during the first night of the Gulf War. His ability to simply navigate through the cultural mine fields of his team’s holiday schedule alone earned my respect. That he was a compassionate and thoughtful leader won their respect as well.

But then there was Eddie. The tester who wasn’t really part of either camp. He did just enough to get by, but never enough to seem worth having around. 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 continues the series on firing. You have an outlier, either at the top or the bottom of your stack ranking. How do you decide when to cut your losses? This is Episode Eighteen: Trading Places.

Translating software into other languages seems like fairly straightforward, though tedious work. You simply go through every bit of language that ends up on the screen and translate it. Every menu bar, every dialog box, every button has language on it that needs to get converted. For a product like Windows, there are thousands of them. It can be mind-numbing work.

It gets technically complicated however, if you think about it in any detail. Languages like German are notoriously wordy. A small phrase that was carefully designed to fit just so into a corner expands to ruin the whole visual alignment. And then there are logographic languages like Chinese or Japanese where the details are crucial, and their size and orientation are essential to their meaning.

But most technically challenging of all are languages that change the orientation of everything on the screen. Japanese, for example, where vertical orientation is preferred. Or Arabic and Hebrew where the orientation is right to left. This goes beyond translation and changes the way the software works. That requires coding, and hence extensive testing.

Most companies prefer to have locals do the translation. Microsoft has a major site in Dublin where many of the European language translations are done, and I once had a team there as well. Japanese was done by our Tokyo team. But before Microsoft had much presence in the Middle East, this team was in Redmond. Partly because of the distances, and partly because of the complexity of the translation work.

Having these teams together made sense because Arabic and Hebrew shared many characteristics. We could do some common coding and the testing work could be shared.

Eddie was a tester on the team but didn’t understand either language. He technically didn’t need to, he ran tests, reviewed the error logs, and reported the results. He did his job, and he did it satisfactorily. He never failed to run tests, always reviewed things carefully, always alerted everyone to the errors in a timely fashion. But that was it. He never picked up much of the languages. Never provided input into better ways to test or review the projects. Never thought two steps ahead.

One thing he did do well was complain. That he didn’t like his teammates. That the western sun was bright and hot. That he never got promoted.

At review time, Eddie was a challenge. His manager and I discussed him time and again. Was he worth it? Wouldn’t we really rather have someone who spoke one of the languages? Who was a better team player? Heck, just someone who liked their job? But Eddie did get the work done.

And there you have it. The tradeoff every manager has to make at some point. When is the choice of a draft pick, someone from the hiring pool, better than the person already in the job?

There are at least three dimensions to the tradeoff in deciding if having an outlier employee is worth having around.

The first is output. Do they get the job done? Do they do it well? Could you reasonably expect someone else to do it better? If a replacement is likely to perform as well or better, you’ve almost made the decision already.

But what if they are a superstar? What if they do it so well it’s unlikely that you’ll find someone to take their place? That’s when the other factors come into play.

The second major factor is attitude. Of the person in question, certainly, but also of the team as a whole. Obviously a person with a terrible attitude drags everyone down. They are just difficult to be around. Whether they are a superstar or a bottom feeder, having a jerk or a whiner on the team makes everyone miserable by association.

But there are less obvious effects on a team. Effects that are more insidious. The rest of the team looks at the terrible attitude and wonders why do they get away with it? Why is no one fixing or firing that person?

In fact, the reflection off the terrible behavior is mostly on the manager. It causes the rest of the team to ask questions. To make up stories to explain it. Why does my manager put up with them? Don’t they see this? Are they blind or simply stupid? And if they do see it, why don’t they do anything about it? Does this person have pull or some kind of blackmail on my manager?

Soon, the bigger effect of having a miserable person around isn’t about them, it’s about the team, the manager, the organization as a whole. What kind of a place puts up with this?

If the bad attitude goes on long enough, they start to ask themselves, “what’s the point?” Why shouldn’t I act like a jerk, or complain about everything, or just “phone it in”?

In a brainpower organization, where team morale is a key driving force to accomplishing essentially anything, a bad actor can be like a cancer for the organization. Not taking care to fix or remove the person with the terrible attitude will never work out. The situation will never get better. It will only get worse.

That’s why I’m a huge fan of a very short leash. Give the person with a bad attitude one or perhaps two chances to get on board. And if not, cut your losses. Take another draw from the hiring lottery. It’s hard to do worse, and if you hire someone carefully, you’ll almost certainly do better.

That brings us around to the third tradeoff question: how hard will it be to hire a replacement? And how long will it take them to get up to speed? These questions are the crucial stoppers for any action you might take. If the position is unique, if a replacement won’t be found, or if it will take forever to get a new hire fully functional, here again, the tradeoff is made for you. You have to figure out how to make the best of your admittedly bad situation.

In the end, these three factors: output, attitude, and replacement are the key decisions you need to weigh. Unless you have special cases in one of these three areas, my bias is toward moving on. Fixing people is hard, and the team suffers in the process. Better to cut your losses and move ahead as quickly as you can.

The cases that cause the most pain aren’t at the bottom. Most people realize that replacing someone low in their organization is not hard. Trading them out for someone else is worth it. So that’s easier, and often gets done. Though usually months too late.

But what about the superstar? That’s clearly the more difficult case. How do you make that tradeoff?

I’m reminded of the DirectX team at Microsoft. They were a brash team of rogue engineers tasked with making Windows a better platform for game development. The graphic performance of Windows early on was nowhere near fast enough to be taken seriously as a gaming platform. It was mocked mercilessly among the technical savvy. There had been several attempts to improve it, but they failed miserably.

Enter a team of hardcore gamers and elite engineers. They quickly engineered a way to dramatically improve Windows for gaming. But it meant circumventing a great deal of code the Windows team considered essential. The DirectX team frankly didn’t care. In fact, they relished their rogue status. They were intentionally disruptive and disdainful of the core Windows team. They made pirate logos and more than a few enemies inside the company. Many people thought they should be fired.

But externally, they worked their “fight against the man” attitude hard with the gaming community. And their efforts worked wonders. Today Windows is a key platform for gaming, and the market for PC games is nearly $40 billion dollars. About the same size as the global film box office. Thanks in a large measure to the work the rogue DirectX team did.

The lesson is clear: difficult superstars can be worth the effort. But they certainly don’t make the tradeoff decision any easier.

For superstars the same the three decision points matter: output, attitude, and replacement.

With respect to output, it’s easy to be snowed. Especially in the brainpower world where judging performance is so difficult. That means you need to work to analyze by any possible means, in ways that are as unbiased as possible. Search for metrics that help, but also be sure to use your judgement. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

But if they are amazing, if the work truly is superstar level work, then the attitude is key. If the superstar is terrible to work with because of their attitude, understanding why is the trick.

If they are a jerk because they are a narcissist, because they only care about themselves, there is little hope. They are likely dragging down your team with them. If they can be replaced – even at some loss in output — it’s best to have them move on. To turn your attention to the whole organization. To build for the long term. To remember that you’re building a team, not a cult.

There are, however, people like the DirectX team. They were very hard to work with, but mostly because they believed deeply in the cause. Because they weren’t going to let it go without a fight. Because they had to be jerks to get the job done. In their case, dealing with them is simply the price of winning. You can work to soften the impact of their difficult behavior, but often letting them run free is worth the pain.

In the end, Eddie saved us the trouble. He talked his way into a job on the Windows team. As I recall, he eventually flamed out over there as well and left the company.

But we waited too long to deal with Eddie. By the time he left, our testing team was a mess. Lots of people complaining. Lots of finger pointing. Not a lot of getting new things done. We eventually hired a new test lead, and after a few months she righted the ship. But not without a lot of pain and a couple more losses.

Which brings me around to perhaps the most important point. Whatever you do, don’t dawdle. I can’t recall a time when someone said, “I acted to quickly”. It’s always “I wish I’d done this months ago”. No, don’t do it in a day. But if you’ve been stewing over this for more than a week or two, you’ve explored the options. Time to move.

In brainpower work where attitudes matter more than almost anything else, someone with the wrong attitude can destroy the team. As we talked about repeatedly in the series of episodes on vision, you need to ensure that everyone is on the same page, with the same outlook, and working together.

Next time, we’ll talk about how to do it. How to actually fire people. It can be done well. And it can be done horrifically wrong. I’ve done enough to know the difference.

But that’s next time. Until then, maybe it’s time to draw another card from the deck. To take action to improve the quality of your team. It’s time to trade up.

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, That’s

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That’s it for this episode. In the next episode we’ll look at the right way, and yes, the wrong way to fire people. It’s called “Pulling the Plug”. I hope you’ll listen. Until then, please remember that each of the several dozen decisions you make today are part of Leading Smart.