Three Tips for Managing an Olbermann

Posted 01.24.2011

Olbermann1 It was probably inevitable that Keith Olbermann and his managers at MSNBC would have a stressful parting of the ways. The career history of the talented, iconoclastic, maddening, entertaining (even if he’s the guy you love to hate) Olbermann has been one of resigning from or getting fired by every network he’s worked for.  As one NBC executive said to the New York Times, “Give us a bit of credit for getting eight years out of him. That’s the longest he’s been anywhere.”

About a year ago, I wrote a post called Three Reasons You Should Fire the Prima Donna. Re-reading that this morning, I’m guessing that some of those reasons came into play with Olbermann’s departure from MSNBC. If you’ve got someone on your team who is clearly a star but regularly disrupts the chi and makes life difficult for others on the team, you’ve got a tough problem as a manager. But, before you get to the point where you say, “You’re fired,” you’ll want to give it your best shot at working things out. After all, great talent doesn’t grow on trees. It’s hard to find.

So, how do you manage the superstar that has a penchant for stirring things up? Here are three tips:

Caveat emptor:  or, as we say in English, “Buyer beware.”  The executives at MSNBC knew what they were getting when they hired Olbermann – a very talented broadcaster who had a track record of employment relationships ending badly.  As the unnamed NBC executive said, they made it work to Olbermann’s and their benefit for the better part of eight years. If you’re hiring a superstar, they likely come with a reputation. Know what you’re buying and why you’re buying it.

Keep your cool: It can be oh so easy to get sucked into the drama that churns around the difficult superstar. Prepare your mental and emotional states to resist it. You’re going to need to keep your cool to be objective when things blow up. When that happens, it’s helpful to know the difference between a relatively minor burp and the eruption of Mt. St. Helens.  Work on keeping your cool so you can keep your head and make the right decisions.

Keep a running calc of costs and benefits:  Managing the difficult superstar is not a process you can put on automatic pilot.  It requires ongoing assessment and a running calculation of costs and benefits.  When you reach the tipping point where the current and future costs appear to outweigh the benefits, you’ve got to move. The future of your organization may depend on it.

What about you?  What have you learned about managing difficult superstars? Please share your experience with the rest of us.