Authors: Liz Wiseman,Greg McKeown
Tags: #Business & Economics, #Management
Get Rid of Prima Donnas
Bloom Energy, located in the heart of Silicon Valley, had developed a fuel cell system that produces clean, reliable, and affordable energy. As venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers’s first green-tech venture, Bloom Energy has become a leader in their industry. Leading Bloom Energy is K.R. Sridhar, renowned aerospace and environmental scientist and an energy thought leader.
When K.R. Sridhar started Bloom Energy, he began with what he calls “gene pool engineering.” K.R. explains, “
players attract other
players. Their smarts and passion make other smart, passionate people want to work here. So your first fifty employees are the most important, and hardest.” When Bloom Energy needed to hire their first fifty employees, there was no established green-tech industry at the time. So K.R. broke down each technology they would require to build their energy generators and identified the leading company in this technology. He then researched and found the person inside each company that the company would least want to lose. He reached out to these people, explained the bold challenge Bloom Energy was undertaking, and recruited them to join the company. He engineered a gene pool of elite technical talent who were the best in their respective fields. He now had the talent he needed, and the work of building a team that would deliver an integrated energy technology began. He established one rule: No prima donnas—leave your ego at the door and work as a team.
Within this elite team, one technologist was particularly indispensable. Stefan, an outstanding scientist, was the world expert in the technology that was the lynchpin in their solution. As the team worked, it became clear that Stefan couldn’t collaborate and had become entrenched in his position about the technical direction the company should pursue.
Tensions mounted in the team because the company had just committed to an important beta release in eighteen months. K.R. pulled Stefan into his office and explained the situation, but Stefan wouldn’t back down. Knowing how essential he was to the technical viability of the venture, he made it clear to K.R.: it was either him or the team. K.R. explained the options, but Stefan’s ego wouldn’t allow him to let go of the issue.
K.R. contemplated the issue and the risks involved. Within the hour, he had made his decision. He chose the team. He walked Stefan to the door, then walked over to the rest of the team and explained his actions. “I have put us at significant risk, but I know we have it in us to overcome this. I trust that we will get through this, but there will be significant delays,” he explained. Initially the group was silent, stunned that K.R. was willing to let go of their top technologist. One team member broke the silence and said, “There will be no delays. We will do things we have never done before to get this done.” With renewed energy, the team worked weekends and extraordinary hours. They brought in consultants with the critical expertise they lacked. They kept up the pace for eighteen months while people grew to fill in the gap that was created by Stefan’s departure. They delivered the product successfully, missing their original deadline by only two days!
This incident became the foundation for how the company would operate: the best talent in the industry, but not a single prima donna. Today, Bloom Energy is thriving and is often cited as the reason Kleiner Perkins continues to expand their green-tech portfolio.
K.R. Sridhar accelerated the development of the intellectual assets of this company by getting rid of the prima donna who was impeding the intelligence of the whole organization.
A CEO of a $3 billion consumer products firm was leading his management team through an important product pricing decision that had the potential to generate profits that would fund much-needed R&D expenditures. One member of the management team, Ron, was reluctant to let go of the current model and to support the direction of the team. After a series of management meetings to debate the issues,
it came down to a moment-of-truth decision in an important executive staff meeting. Prior to the meeting, the CEO pulled Ron aside and asked frankly, “If the team wants to move forward with the pricing change, will you let go of your position against this and support a new model?” Ron agreed that he would support the new direction.
However, during the staff meeting, Ron again dug in his heels, telling the group, “My team simply won’t support this new pricing model.” There was a silent exasperation in the room as the team could see that their ideas and energy were being blocked once again. The CEO stopped the meeting and asked Ron to step outside. He took him about forty yards down the hall to his office and he fired him. Right there on the spot.
As he walked back to the conference room, the CEO wondered if he had acted too fast and if this move would throw off the team. He reentered the conference room and told them. Instead of concern, he could see relief on their faces. One executive team member said, “Look, if anything, I think you waited too long.”
Is it possible that your smartest people may be impeding the smarts of your organization? And is it possible you are waiting too long to remove the blockers?
Get Out of the Way
Sometimes a Talent Magnet removes the prima donna who is blocking the intelligence of others. But sometimes the blocker is the leader him-or herself. C.K. Prahalad, management guru and one of my mentors, once shared with me an old saying in India: “Nothing grows under a banyan tree.” It provides shade and is comfortable, but it allows no sun in for growth. Many leaders are banyan trees; they protect their people, but nothing grows under them.
One corporate VP had a favorite saying, quoted often and written on her door: “Ignore me as needed to get your job done.” This simple mantra signaled an important trust in the judgment and capability of others. Her people knew that exercising their judgment and getting the job done rapidly was more important than placating the boss. She told
new staff members, “Yes, there will be a few times when I get agitated because I would have done it differently, but I’ll get over it. I’d rather you trust your judgment, keep moving, and get the job done.”
Talent Magnets remove the barriers that block the growth of intelligence in their people.
The world of the Talent Magnet is dynamic. Talent is drawn in by the strong gravitational pull of the Talent Magnet. It is then fully utilized, stretched, made continually ready for new challenges. Life with an Empire Builder doesn’t offer the same thrill ride. It is a world of politics, ownership, and limitations.
THE DIMINISHER’S APPROACH TO MANAGING TALENT
Multipliers operate from a belief that talent exists everywhere and they can use it at its highest if they can simply identify the genius in people. Diminishers think
People need to report to me in order to get them to do anything
. One such senior director said the only thing that was wrong with the underperforming IT division was that it reported to someone else. He saw owning the resources himself as the primary solution. Diminishers are owners of talent, not developers of talent. Because they don’t actively develop talent, people in their organizations languish and can actually regress.
. Empire Builders focus their energy on acquiring resources and slotting them into organizational structures where they are visible and clearly under the command of the leader. For some leaders, this amassing of talent can become an obsession.
Recall Jasper Wallis, the high-cost Diminisher from the first chapter, who was obsessed with the size of his organization relative to those of his peers on the executive team. After years of building his organization with his right hand while masking the underlying problems with
his left hand, Jasper succeeded in building an empire complete with a separate office tower, customer visit center, and training campus just for his division. However, his organization had become gangly after such rapid, unrestrained growth and created additional problems of integration and coordination. The hole became deeper and deeper until the division was radically scaled back and folded into another group. Like ancient Rome, the empire eventually got overextended and collapsed under its own weight.
PUT PEOPLE IN BOXES
Divide and conquer is the modus operandi of Empire Builders. They bring in great talent and carve out a fiefdom for them, but they don’t encourage people to step beyond these walls. Rather than give broad scope to their management team, Empire Builders ensure that they, themselves, are the point of integration. You can often spot an Empire Builder because he or she either operates exclusively through one-on-one meetings or runs staff meetings as an official report-out from each fiefdom.
One manager was known for making key decisions one-on-one rather than with his team. This fostered a covert and high-stakes game among his lieutenants. Each of them would vie for the coveted one-on-one meeting time—the last meeting on a Friday afternoon. Why? Because everyone knew that he made his decisions by himself over the weekend and announced them in his staff meeting on Monday. People quickly learned that the person who got his ear last on Friday afternoon would have the most influence. His divide-and-conquer approach not only kept people in narrowly defined roles, it was a dangerous and costly way to make decisions.
LET TALENT LANGUISH
. One way Empire Builders stifle their talent is by hogging the limelight for themselves. They are often the prima donna, insisting that they get maximum time on the stage and that scripts are written to feature them. Whereas Talent Magnets give credit, Empire Builders take credit.
Hogging the limelight is an active way Empire Builders hold others back, but the more insidious problem is actually what they don’t do. These managers actively acquire talent, but then are passive about growing it. They are, for the most part, oblivious to the development of others. In fact, in our quantitative research, we found that “develops the talent of the team” was among the lowest three skills of the Diminisher.
They also stifle talent because they don’t clear away the dead wood. One Diminisher we studied was notorious for draining his organization through his inaction. People said, “He and his management team never made decisions. They didn’t make waves, they just kept analyzing.” Instead of firing toxic or ineffective leaders, he would slowly disable them. One observer noted, “It was torture to watch one of his staff get cut off. It was like a child pulling off the legs of a spider one by one and then watching it hobble away.”
When leaders play the role of the Empire Builder, they bring in great resources, but they underutilize them because they fundamentally undervalue them. They continue to operate in a “one brain, many hands” organizational model that stunts the growth of both intelligence and talent around them. Diminishers build organizations where people go to die. This is why Diminishers are costly to organizations. The assets in their portfolio don’t increase in value.
Marguerite Hancock, the girls’ camp director discussed earlier, is known for getting the maximum effort from her team. Not only does she attract and develop a team of
players; this university professor-researcher expects
work from everyone. She isn’t shy about asking others to do the really tough stuff. One team member said, “She asks you to do really hard things. But she makes it an act of service, not servitude. And she fully expects you to ask other people to do hard things, too.”
Under Marguerite’s leadership, people say they “execute to the
maximum” and “do things they never thought they could do.” When girls’ camp is over each year, her fellow leaders confess to feeling a certain relief it is done. But, they say, “I feel like all that effort was worth it. I’m absolutely exhausted, but I am ready to do it again.”
work, exhausted but ready to do it again: This is the way of the Talent Magnet. This is how, under their leadership, smart people get smarter. Talent Magnets go beyond attracting smart people into the organization. They also draw out that talent by connecting people with opportunities that allow them to operate at their highest point of contribution.
The following chart reflects why Empire Builders leave capability on the table while Talent Magnets create and grow intelligence all around them.
What They Do
Hoard resources and underutilize talent
What They Get
A reputation as the person
players should avoid working for (“the place you go to die”)
Underutilized people whose capability atrophies
players who don’t reach out to other
A stagnation of talent where disillusioned
players quit and stay
What They Do
Attract talent and deploy it at its highest point of contribution
What They Get
A reputation as the person
players should work for (“the place you go to grow”)
Fully utilized people whose genius continues to expand
players who attract other
players into the organization
A flow of
players attracting other
players as they then move up and out of the organization
BECOMING A TALENT MAGNET
The promise of a Multiplier is that they get twice the capacity, plus a growth dividend from their people as their genius expands under the leadership of the Multiplier. Let’s now look at a few starting points for becoming a Talent Magnet.