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In hi-tech, intelligence is always a critical element in any employee, because what we do is difficult and complex and the competitors are filled with extremely smart people. However, intelligence is not the only important quality. Being effective in a company also means working hard, being reliable, and being an excellent member of the team.
When I was a CEO, this was one of the most difficult lessons for me to learn. I felt that it was my job to create an environment where brilliant people of all backgrounds, personality types, and work styles would thrive. And I was right. That was my job. Companies where people with diverse backgrounds and work-styles can succeed have significant advantages in recruiting and retaining top talent over those that don’t. Still, you can take it too far. And I did.
Here is one three examples of the smartest people in the company being the worst employees. The other two: The Flake and The Jerk.
Example 1: The Heretic
Any sizable company produces some number of strategies, projects, processes, promotions, and other activities that don’t make sense. No large organization achieves perfection. As a result, a company needs lots of smart, super engaged employees who can identify its particular weaknesses and help it improve them.
However, sometimes really smart employees develop agendas other than improving the company. Rather than identifying weaknesses, so that he can fix them, he looks for faults to build his case. Specifically, he builds his case that the company is hopeless and run by a bunch of morons. The smarter the employee, the more destructive this type of behavior can be. Simply put, it takes a really smart person to be maximally destructive, because otherwise nobody else will listen to him.
Why would a smart person try to destroy the company that he works for? There are actually many reasons. Here are few:
1. He is disempowered—She feels that she cannot access the people in charge and, as a result, complaining is her only vehicle to get the truth out.
2. He is fundamentally a rebel—She will not be happy unless she is rebelling; this can be a deep personality trait. Sometimes these people actually make better CEOs than employees.
3. He is immature and naïve—She cannot comprehend that the people running the company do not know every minute detail of the operation and therefore they are complicit in everything that’s broken.
Often, it’s very difficult to turn these kinds of cases around. Once an employee takes a public stance, the social pressure for him to be consistent is enormous. If he tells 50 of his closest friends that the CEO is the stupidest person on the planet, then reversing that position will cost him a great amount of credibility the next time he complains. Most people are not willing to take the credibility hit.
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When do you hold the bus?
The great football coach John Madden was once asked whether or not he would tolerate a player like Terrell Owens on his team. Owens was both one of the most talented players in the game and one of the biggest jerks. Madden answered:
“If you hold the bus for everyone on the team, then you’ll be so late that you’ll miss the game, so you can’t do that. The bus must leave on time. However, sometimes you’ll have a player that’s so good that you hold the bus for him, but only him.”
Phil Jackson, the basketball coach who has won the most NBA championships, was once asked about his famously flakey superstar Dennis Rodman: “Since Dennis Rodman is allowed to miss practice, does this mean other star players like Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen can miss practice too?” Jackson replied:
“Of course not. There is only room for one Dennis Rodman on this team. In fact, you really can only have a very few Dennis Rodmans in society as a whole; otherwise, we would degenerate into anarchy.”
You may find yourself with an employee who fits one of the above descriptions, but nonetheless makes a massive positive contribution to the company. You may decide that you will personally mitigate the employee’s negative attributes and keep them from polluting the overall company culture. That’s fine, but remember: you can only hold the bus for her.
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In his own words….
“My blogging agenda for this year is to reflect on the many experiences I’ve had in my career—as computer science student, software engineer, cofounder, CEO, fund raiser, company acquirer and seller—and distill the lessons I’ve learned in each of those roles. I’ll use this blog to share what I’ve learned, provide a sharp opinion or two, and generally contribute to the lively dialog around entrepreneurship, building and leading organizations, and venture capital.”