CXO

How to deal with IT prima donnas

IT managers must call on creativity to keep employees happy, particularly if the employee is a high-priced prima donna. These staffing tips can help you meet employee demands without compromising your authority.


High-priced employees are in an enviable position. They’re marketable in any type of economy. It’s easy to understand why many superstars use their power to get what they want. Some deem corporate protocol an annoying and unnecessary hindrance to getting their job done. All super achievers “want to be architects of their future, not pawns in a chessboard,” said Brian Stern, vice president of SHL, an HR consulting company in Cleveland.

Whether their behavior is conscious or unconscious, super talent can be a manager’s worst nightmare. They have the potential to alienate their peers and cause dissension in the ranks.

So how should IT managers treat their talent? Do you let them do what they please, or do you find ways to rein them in so they’re playing their part in the corporate culture?

There is no magic formula, according to psychologists and HR consultants. But there are different schools of thought. Most experts agree that a strategy is critical.

Strategy #1: Giving into demands, within reason
Once the special characteristics that set them off from the pack are identified, there are two principles that can help IT managers work with superstars, said Ruth Fornell, chief marketing officer at Teradata (a division of NCR), a technology consulting company in Dayton, OH.
  • Give them the opportunity to do what they do best. You don’t want them to be frustrated.
  • Give them the space and flexibility so they can work to their maximum potential.

Fornell has tested her two principles with a chief strategist at her company who plays the corporate game by his own rules. He spends virtually no time at the company and communicates via cell phone or e-mail. “He hates the corporate scene,” said Fornell. “More than 80 percent of his time is spent traveling the globe working with the company’s customers.”

Other than frequent cell phone and e-mail contact, Fornell meets with him quarterly to set goals and discuss how to best achieve them. She puts up with this corporate prima donna because he’s “invaluable,” according to Fornell.

“He has 25 years of experience and brings both technical, analytical, and business skills that are almost impossible to find in one person,” Fornell said.

By cutting him the slack he needs, the seasoned professional turns in a super-achiever performance that helps fatten Teradata’s bottom line. Fornell sees no point in shackling him to corporate protocol.

Yet the decision to let this worker create his own schedule was carefully thought out by Fornell.

“I asked myself two questions,” she said. “What are the benefits of supporting this person? And what impact does he have on the organization? If the cost outweighs the benefits, you have to pursue an alternate plan. An organization is stronger than one person. And everyone is dispensable. I have never seen a situation where one person makes or breaks an entire organization.”

Strategy #2: Reining in the prima donna
Obviously there are dangers when you give a superstar employee too much freedom. “If you extend too many privileges, you risk creating an elite class of superstars,” Stern said. “Ultimately, that leads to friction in the ranks.”

Once high performers’ strengths and weaknesses are assessed, IT managers ought to set expectations from the onset, according to Stern. “Let them know precisely how things work and your expectations,” he said.

Stern advises giving super achievers options so they can decide their own fate. Ultimately, you’re doing them a favor.

You might say, “It’s fine if you want to spend the entire day in your office. But if you want to advance and enjoy more freedom, you have to participate.”

“They have a choice now,” Stern said. “You might be presenting them with an option they never considered, such as an opportunity to move up the ladder.”

Stern also said it’s a mistake assuming all high performers are loners or misanthropes. “They may surprise you by welcoming the opportunity to use their technical skills in new ways,” he said. “On another level, some high achievers don’t know how to interact and never considered the benefits of coming out of their cocoons to polish new skills.”

Managing super talent is not textbook managing. “Every situation is different,” Stern adds, “which makes it a difficult challenge for IT managers. The tough part is finding the management strategy that works best.”

Quick tips
Stern offers a simple, three-step process for managing superstars.
  1. Stop: Take a time-out, take stock, step back from the "do loop," and see how your organization is helping or hurting the attraction, retention, and motivation of your talent. It’s often hard to see through the day-to-day realities of our hectic workplace.
  2. Look: Look at what's working and what isn't. Check in with other organizations in different industries. Try to be objective in your evaluation of what you're doing well and where you need help.
  3. Listen: The signs are easy to spot if you take the time to listen. Listen for whispers of discontent. Ask people what they're feeling and create a workplace that encourages talent to share their thoughts and ideas.

Saying good-bye to the superstar?
Have you been forced to fire a superstar because he or she just wasn’t worth the trouble? Post a comment below or send us an e-mail.

 

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