My most recent experience with a Brilliant Jerk occurred when I was helping a group of 25 doctors thrash out their shared values as they needed to move from being a group to a company. Toward the front of the room, I spotted the Brilliant Jerk. He was the one doctor who dampened the unity with subtle but consistent complaining about why they couldn’t do things and questioning why they should do other things. When he spoke, everyone got quiet and listened – not out of excitement for what he was going to say – it was out of respect. Yes, the doctors had respect for the Brilliant Jerk. Here’s why. He was the first to cover the on call doctors. He was the first to volunteer to work on holidays. He had the most articles published in the American Medical Association. He was the first to get new training and share it with others one on one. By the way, he was the highest revenue producer of all the doctors. In many cases, he produced 2x the revenue of other doctors. He was the third doctor to join the group and without his revenue production, the startup could not have been successful. He was brilliant for the startup in his field of medicine, just not brilliant to grow. Brilliant Jerks are specialized high producing performers. However, they are not brilliant business people, which is in high demand during high growth. Moving from startup to growth success, companies have to clear three hurdles known as the Big Cs, Culture, Chaos, and Cash. While they are high hurdles, they are not nearly as agonizing as the human factor hurdle of growth. The human factor encompasses how you move, shift and replace people for the next level of success. In this blog, I’m going to discuss how the brilliant startup talent becomes the brilliant jerk, and more importantly, what to do about it.
First, let’s look at how they become the Brilliant Jerk. Most high growth companies start with 2 or 3 founders who have a common idea and are passionately committed to its mission. Because the idea and cause create shared values among the founders and early employees, work is fun. Most days everyone feels like they are part of the team and doing great work, while some days it feels like Survivor when you are working nights and weekends to ensure you are still in business on Monday morning. One thing is certain; everyone is important. Decisions are usually made when everyone is in the room or at least within earshot of the discussion. With this kind of commitment, hard work and passion, the company starts to grow and double in size and revenue. Now, instead of being part of a Scout troop, you Ride the Rocket every day with a mission control room. Work is a blast with constant turbulence, and everyone has to give it their all to keep the rocket in orbit (alignment) and on a common mission. Inevitably, at least one of the founders or early superstars will not like the new “growth” mission that changes roles, careers and lives in the company. They still want to be the Brilliant Talent in the startup, instead of being a contributor on the rocket where everyone has to step up to new roles and where new superstars are made.
I had a Brilliant Startup Talent while I was building one of my companies into a global brand. When we hired him, we hired over our heads. He had juice. We marveled at his manic performance that often propelled all of us. When we had a crisis, he could solve it. Yes, he could have taken bigger jobs at bigger salaries but he chose us rebels to help prove why we should exist as a company. He knew we were right in our vision and mission, and he also knew we could not do it without him. To maintain his glory, he struggled to let us go and grow. The growth phase required the addition of staff, systems and structure which changed the dynamics of the company. While he was a high tech genius, the new stars were being made in areas such as sales, marketing and education.
The Brilliant Talent felt left out because he was no longer needed in every meeting. He could not simply “pop” into the CEO’s office 4-5 times a day like old times, and the new processes or systems hindered and often prevented him from being the savior of the company. Right before our eyes, the Brilliant Talent became the Brilliant Jerk when his actions and behavior hurt the excitement and growth of the company as he hung a dark cloud over the company. I have listened to Brilliant Jerks proclaim, “I am the one who is always on call, who drives the most revenue, who is here on the weekends and who has resident knowledge to sink or swim the enterprise.” The Brilliant Jerk speaks the truth; however, I have also seen him stick his head in the door and send an entire management team flying low with both attitude and altitude – a perfect example of how the Brilliant Jerk alone can spoil the bunch.
A growth company needs enablers, not disablers. Even when the Brilliant Jerk is right, he is a disabler. Although he was an enabler during the startup, he is a disabler during the growth. He feels growth undermines his credibility and worth. Firing the Brilliant Jerk is not even in the discussion as companies try to reconcile his need for glory with the company’s need for growth. Based on sheer loyalty, entrepreneurs are inclined to try to find a way to make it work.
Back to the point – what do you do with the Brilliant Jerk? The answer is you get rid of him as fast as you possibly can. The biggest waste of time in a high growth company is the timeline between when you know someone does not fit the growth culture and the time you take to terminate the relationship. On average, the Brilliant Jerk hangs around for 1.5 years where decisive action can limit it to less than6 months, taking into full consideration the singular importance of his job. Entrepreneurs are builders and growers, and termination of the Brilliant Jerk is not one of their basic instincts. The likes of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Roger Ailes have no problem showing the door to Brilliant Jerks and all have built world-class brands faster and better than the rest. I wish I could tell you I was as tough as these guys when trying to reconcile the Brilliant Jerk in growth and individual contribution. I learned the hard way by not taking action when I should have. I can tell you that letting the Brilliant Jerk work from home, consoling them and giving them special assignments does not work. It all just kicks the can down the road as Independence Day is coming for the Brilliant Jerk and the company that needs to know and grow. By the way, after finally terminating the Brilliant Jerk, I was worried about the impact on other employees who had shown respect toward him. To my surprise, here is what the employees said, “Why did it take you so long?” One of the worst feelings is looking at the Brilliant Jerk and saying, “We have a vision and I have decided you are no longer a match for where we need to go.” The best feeling comes the next day without the Brilliant Jerk when everyone is moving forward together.