Picking Out the Brown Smarties


Artist Credit: Victoria Cowan

When I was growing up at GE in the early 1990s, Jack Welch used to write thought-provoking letters to shareholders that were often quoted and debated. One year he wrote about a topic that sparked a lot of discussion because it called out one of the most vexing questions in an organization – what to do about the difficult employee who achieves fabulous results year after year.

Jack framed the discussion in this four block model. The vertical axis represents an employee’s job performance, and the horizontal axis represents how well the employee demonstrates the values that are most important to an organization. Two quadrants are easy to call. If a person demonstrates both performance and values, they are highly rated and rewarded. If they demonstrate neither, they don’t belong. The other two boxes are trickier.

In Jack’s world, values trump performance, so an employee who has a great attitude but hasn’t met performance targets is given a second chance. This leaves us with what Jack would describe as the “SOBs” – people who deliver but are “toxic” to the organizational culture. We have all met people like this during our careers, and they are most often tolerated because they deliver results. Jack’s goal was to root them out.

I have sketched this matrix from time to time when working with clients; however, in recent years I have found it to be too constraining and open to abuse (as apparently has GE, which last year announced that it was doing away with annual performance reviews and rankings).

These days I am much more likely to discuss how to manage the talent with my clients. Taking a cue from professional sports and entertainment, the idea of the talent is that in order to attract and retain exceptional people, an organization must be open to a great diversity of personalities, idiosyncrasies, and work styles. Think about the rock band Van Halen, who at the peak of their fame insisted that backstage catering provide, amongst many other demands, a bowl of Smarties – but with absolutely no brown ones! Maybe an absurd demand, but probably worth heeding for a promoter who was earning millions of dollars based on Van Halen’s talent and fame. (In recent years the band has suggested that they inserted these crazy requests into their riders just to make sure promoters were reading them, but that is a topic for another post.)

Thinking about exceptional corporate employees as the talent has resonated with my clients who run anything from a trading floor to a tech firm. It does, however, require all of us to reframe what we mean by corporate values and culture, and to be honest about what is really sacrosanct.

Not long ago, a client lamented a recent addition to his team. This new employee is viewed as one of a handful of experts in a particular discipline – a real coup for my client to have hired her – and after only a few months she has added millions of dollars of value to the firm. Having said this, my client’s ELT finds her to be a real pain. This is an organization that values constant collaboration and communication – a place where leaving a text unanswered for more than an hour is viewed as rude and undermining.

The problem with the new employee is that she does not seem to think that communicating is important. She does her work – brilliantly – with colleagues inside and outside of the organization, but she will not answer emails, texts or voicemails that she considers to be off task. She also refuses to brief the ELT on her projects as is expected of all of her peers.

My client remembered me drawing the Jack Welch matrix years ago, and he agonized over whether to pull the plug on this employee because she seemed to fit the model of the difficult employee who needed to be rooted out. However, when we reframed the discussion to think about her as the talent, he became more comfortable with the idea of learning to live with her idiosyncrasies because of the value that she brought. This did leave us feeling a little hypocritical as we acknowledged the tension that this decision created in a corporate culture that emphasized collaboration and communication.

The more often I find myself staring into such problems with my clients, the more I realize that sometimes, for the sake of retaining a specific talented person, one does need to bend expectations, even if this does serve to weaken the corporate culture. In some cases I have found that the “difficult employee” is actually providing a valuable service in challenging a norm that might be ill-defined or even counterproductive.

In my client’s organization, it is possible that a tendency to over-communicate and over-collaborate has slowed down decision-making and created fuzzy accountabilities. The new person on the team might be creating a healthy tension and forcing a dialogue about what is really appropriate and effective. Either way, be careful of the instinct to weed out “difficult” but effective employees without an honest evaluation. Picking out the brown Smarties might be a small price to pay to retain exceptional talent!

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