The July Leadership Development Round Table Challenge

Posted 07.13.2011

You may recall from last month’s inaugural event, this is where we put forth a vexing real world leadership challenge and a number of regular contributors (including yours truly) plus one guest share their best advice on how to handle it… in 200 words or less.  You vote with your comments and with your actual vote, and after one week of fierce but professional debate, a winner is announced.

This month’s case study author and host is Art Petty of Management Excellence. Thanks Art!  Here’s the case:

The Situation:

Pat Paulsen, the Director of Product Management for Apex Inc., sat for a few moments and stared out the window after the project team left her office. She was disappointed that her employee, Joe, was once again, the topic of discussion and complaint.

Apparently, Joe had yet again stomped on some toes and bruised some egos on the project team.  He had shared his disdain for what he viewed as a slow and overly bureaucratic process to gain approval for the feature specifications for the next version of Apex’s flagship product.  When the project team resisted his efforts to ram through the specifications, Joe had used his considerable pull with the overseas head of engineering to bypass the team completely.  His response to the protests from team members was, “I’ll get this done with or without you.” 


Joe was a widely acknowledged brilliant product manager who had worked hard since the business unit’s inception 7 years ago to translate customer needs into product ideas and programs that solved problems and kept competitors off-balance and chasing Apex.  

Additionally, customers and industry partners respected Joe’s industry knowledge and his zeal for supplying them with products that helped them run their businesses more effectively.  They even overlooked his propensity to tell them how to run parts of their business, because he was most often right. “One partner summed it up best, “Joe has a horrible bedside manner, but he knows his stuff.”

Pat and Joe

Pat, as Joe’s manager, had been on the receiving end of a number of these types of complaints over the years. The conversations typically started with, “I know Joe is brilliant, but… .” The group that just left her office didn’t include any references to “brilliant” this time.

Pat genuinely believed that she had gone beyond the call of duty trying to remedy the problem and support Joe’s development. In addition to documenting, discussing and offering ample feedback and guidance over the past few years, Pat had invested in Joe attending several workshops on improving interpersonal skills. And just last year, Pat, with her superior’s blessing, had invested in sending Joe off to the prestigious Institute for Leadership Excellence, for some focused and very expensive coaching.

Perhaps the most perplexing part of the situation was that Joe seemed to genuinely take the feedback and coaching to heart. He worked hard on modifying his behavior after receiving feedback, but eventually he would become frustrated when project team members or groups ignored his guidance or moved too slowly on an issue that he viewed as critical.

The Environment:

The values at Apex were clearly posted in every conference room and they clearly implored people to “Break Down Walls,” “Challenge the Status Quo” and “Serve Customers First.” Taken literally, Joe’s behavior matched those values perfectly. He did do great things for the firm, and he was a thorn in everyone’s side in the process. 

The success of the business unit over the past few years (much of which was due to Joe’s products), had led to a significant shift in the internal culture, from one fueled by entrepreneurial zeal to one that was building processes and relying more on teams.  It was clearly a different environment and one where Joe’s approach was increasingly in conflict with the emerging culture. 

What Next?

Pat shuddered to think what life would be like without Joe’s knowledge and expertise helping the company specify and launch great products.  She pushed the momentary vision of him wearing a competitor’s badge at the upcoming industry trade show out of her mind.

Pat had no doubt about Joe’s brilliance, but it was clear that his approach engaging with others had more than worn thin. She sighed and pondered what to do next.

Help Pat. What should Pat do given the history and circumstances described in the case?

Advice from the Roundtable Members:

-From Art Petty, Management Excellence

Pat is in a pickle, and her options are not great. Joe is unlikely to change his spots with more coaching and counseling, and the”or else” discussion will begin moving Joe out the door. Leaders often have to make hard, unpopular calls, and this certainly feels like one of those.

The values describe an aggressive culture, and given the growth (on the back of Joe’s products), new people and new processes and teams are forming and feeling their way forward. While Joe seems to introduce significant task conflict and creative tension, it does not appear that his behavior is unethical, immoral or toxic. It does create task stress, which can contribute to improved performance.

Strengthen the team…provide coaching and training on team dynamics, conflict resolution and managing challenging team members. No one should have to walk on eggshells around Joe, and individuals and groups must be comfortable conducting robust dialogue with him and each other. If his behavior crosses the line from task to personal and the toxicity goes up, I would advise Pat to move him out. For now, I’m not willing to suggest she trade a visionary with an unquestioned ability to create value.

Leadership is often lonely.

-From Jennifer V. Miller, The People Equation

It’s time for Pat to level with Joe and let him know that if he doesn’t curb his atrocious bedside manner, he’ll be discovering his brilliance somewhere outside of Apex Inc. Allowing this behavior to continue tells other employees: “It’s ok to act like a jerk as long as you’re brilliant”. Lots of really smart people don’t leave bodies in ditches, so the “we tolerate it because he’s brilliant” argument doesn’t cut it.

Joe’s been acting this way for seven years, so he’ll push back, offering evidence of all his accomplishments. Pat should meet with Human Resources to review the existing documentation and develop a plan for the conversation with Joe.

The overall message should be: “Joe, we appreciate your efforts on behalf of Apex. Business conditions have changed and we now need team players, not hard-charging mavericks. Your behavior must change, or you will be fired.”

After that, it’s up to Joe to determine if he wants to change. He’s increasingly becoming a square peg in a round hole. Not only is Joe’s behavior damaging to other employees, it’s most likely stressful for him to continually be told to “change”.  He may decide that it’s best to move on.

-From Sharlyn Lauby, H.R. Bartender

The thing that stood out to me was the environment.  The scenario paints a disconnect between the stated company values and the actual internal culture.  At some point, the company will have to reconcile this.  That’s another post.
I’ve seen this situation many times.  A person has creativity and produces at a high level but leaves body bags all along the way.  Hopefully, Pat is able to recognize the good things Joe has done for the company while at the same time realize it might be time for him to move on.

If Pat continues with the status quo, there are two possible repercussions.  (1) the remaining team members become completely disengaged creating an “us versus them” environment.  (2) Pat’s credibility goes down the tubes because she failed to deal with the situation.

Pat needs to explore a way to have Joe exit the team in a positive way, allowing him to keep his dignity.  At the same time, she needs to set new expectations for the remaining team members who will still be accountable for delivering results.

-From Dan McCarthy, Great Leadership

Joe is doing exactly what he was hired to do and you’ve allowed him to do. In fact, up until recently, it sounds like Joe’s values were a perfect match for your company culture.

Oh sure, you’ve spent a bundle on executive coaches and fancy charm schools, and for a while, he may have been ready and able to change. However, when push came to shove, you continued to let him get away with it because he got the results you craved. To make matters worse, it sounds like you’ve been so dependent on Joe that you’ve ignored the development of the rest of the team.

Managing an employee like Joe is like having a drinking or gambling problem – we deny there’s a problem until it’s a crisis.

It’s time to sit with Joe and spell out your behavioral expectations. More importantly, it’s time to lay out the consequences – this has been what’s missing in order for him to change.

If he does not change, then you need to follow-up on those consequences.  I’m betting he will once he sees you’re serious. That’s when you earn your stripes as a leader!

-From Scott Eblin, The Next Level

In considering Pat’s dilemma about Joe, two quotations come to mind.  The first is from the former French president and general Charles deGaulle.  “The cemeteries, he said, are full of indispensable men.”    Pat is feeling trapped because she’s allowed herself to believe that Joe is indispensable.    She will eventually have to deal with his behavior in a definitive way.  It’s just a question of whether it’s sooner or later.  Either way, she needs to start working on building the company’s talent pipeline now so that when Joe leaves she’s not left with a gaping talent hole in the organization.

That leads to the second quotation.  Paraphrasing Karl Marx (yes, that Karl Marx), the good of the many outweigh the good of the few.   As talented as they are, people like Joe ultimately stifle their organizations because the really good people leave because they don’t want to work with a pain in the butt.  If Pat lets this play out much longer, she’s going to be left with a lot of mediocre people and Joe.  Not a great competitive situation to be in.  She might have one more “You’ve got to change or else,”  conversation with Joe, but she has to be prepared to let him go.

-From Steve Roesler, All Things Workplace

Indeed, we’ve probably all dealt with high-performing/low-collaboration types. The last client situation with which I was involved saw the real-life “Pat” character follow the same steps described ( I was “Joe’s” coach). After being involved with a number of these, here are my thoughts. 200 words probably won’t do it justice.

1.    Joe works for a profit-making company that rewards revenue generation and will go out of business without it. (Note the Apex well-publicized values). So, the question to ask is, “While this huge pain in the butt is ringing up business, what behaviors can we all learn to live with?”

2.    Pat has introduced developmental activities to impact Joe’s behavior. In fact, Joe has actually exhibited desired behaviors. It seems that the smell of victory puts him into high gear and, like a profit magnet, he goes for the gold.

3.    Bypassing people and procedures is normally a no-no. But look at the bestselling books that tell you to be a Maverick or use the Fire-Ready-Aim approach to business. If you’re a high achiever, what are you supposed to believe?

One last possibility: team meeting with Joe to let it all hang out. Could it hurt?

It’s Your Turn… Vote on for your favorite answer.  Share your advice on what Pat should do.

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