Singing for Themselves

While it's not unusual for an employee to think some customers are stupid, few say so to customers directly. But Vivek Wadhwa, CEO of Relativity Technologies Inc. in Cary, N.C., has twice had to apologize during the past few years to customers who have endured developers calling them "stupid" right to their face.

What kind of employees would do that? IT prima donnas. They're smart, they're skilled, they're opinionated, they're arrogant. And, yes, they're frequently even right. But are they really worth the management headaches and morale problems they can cause?

Greg Walton, CIO of Carilion Health System, a $658 million Roanoke, Va.-based health care company, defines prima donnas as "big brains" with stronger intellects and stronger egos than other workers. "They tend to operate on a different plane, see problems differently, see solutions differently," he says, adding that those qualities make such employees worthwhile.

But treating prima donnas like other employees is a mistake, notes Walton. Instead, he says, master the techniques for managing them, and they may become some of your best employees.

Gene Bedell, CEO of Engenia Software Inc., a management software company in Reston, Va., tells the story of a brilliant technical person who couldn't get along with people, said whatever was on his mind, and didn't suffer fools gladly. "We cleared the ground around him," says Bedell, referring to limiting the employee's interactions with others. "We wouldn't let him manage anyone. We told others to give him some slack. And we gave him a lot of coaching."

Eventually, this prima donna learned how to be a team player and was made a manager. Bedell was able to benefit from the prima donna's technical abilities, while the employee worked on his social skills.

Garrett Granger, CIO at pencil manufacturer Dixon Ticonderoga Co. in Heathrow, Fla., gives the following advice for managing IT prima donnas:

Give them the personal attention and feedback they demand and require.

Be diplomatic. Prima donnas often react quickly - and negatively - to criticism, which they take as an affront to their abilities. Granger is direct when giving criticism but takes the edge off by saying, "Don't take this wrong, but . . ."

Steer them in the right direction. Prima donnas are prone to going off on tangents because they think they have the better solution. Granger addresses this by putting them on projects that require teamwork. "When they have to work on common things, it slows down the prima donna's ability to branch off on tangents [and] tempers their arrogance," he says.

Giving the prima donna more of your personal time, seeking his advice on IT projects and issues and letting him in on future projects earlier than others also help to fill the prima donna's need for special treatment, says Walton. But don't single him out too much, or you risk alienating others on the team, he cautions. Still, a little special treatment goes a long way.

Prima donnas frequently cause morale problems by belittling others. Dan Bent, CIO at Benefit Systems Inc., a third-party Indianapolis-based administrator of employee benefits, stifles this by pointing out to the prima donna that it's other workers who do many of the repetitive tasks the prima donna would never want to do. Bent says he works with the prima donna so long as the benefits outweigh the negatives. He says he cuts the cord "when the behavior offsets the person's effectiveness - when they're more trouble than they're worth."

Wadhwa says he fences off prima donnas and "puts them in their own world." They're worth doing this for because they are so good at what they do. But that's assuming the worker fits Wadhwa's definition of the prima donna who's a genius.

There are plenty of IT managers, though, who say prima donnas are so disruptive that no amount of talent can compensate for the problems they cause and the disproportionate amount of management time they require. "I would sacrifice someone who was enormously talented if they continue to be a prima donna," says Tom Lewis, chairman and CEO of Salt Lake City-based Campus Pipeline Inc., which provides technology services to colleges and universities.

The image of a man who claimed he could produce better software code than anyone on the team is still vivid after 25 years to Jon Dell'Antonia, CIO at children's clothing manufacturer OshKosh B'Gosh Inc. in Oshkosh, Wis. Recalls Dell'Antonia, "The guy was an incredible talent, [but] he was such a disruptive force. He would berate others. We had to let him go."

The bottom-line question for managers is how to know when to let a prima donna go. The answer: When the employee is costing you more than he is delivering, managers say. You can see this in terms of lost team morale and antagonized customers, or when projects go off course and cost more or take longer than they should. All are sure signs that it's time to cut the cord.

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