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When it’s All About Them: The Hazards of Dealing With High-Maintenance People

Working with prima-donna team members.

As the football season reaches its crescendo and another production year begins, our eyes tend to be focused on superstars. If your NFL team is entering the playoffs, it probably has a few. If your origination team had a record year, you probably have a few as well. If your results left something to be desired, you probably would like to acquire a superstar or two to boost production to desired levels.

Superstars come with a price, both in the NFL and in our business. Often the price in dollars is well worth the results obtained, as the playoff-bound NFL teams can attest. More often, superstars absorb financial resources that don’t allow their teams to support other high-caliber players, and the team is unsuccessful. But sometimes the superstars come with a price that is simply too high. Not in money, but in the maintenance required to keep them functioning.

Like thoroughbred horses, top performers, particularly among salespeople, require a lot of special handling. The same qualities that make them successful often make them hard to handle: large ego, self-centeredness, hypersensitive to criticism, highly competitive nature. If you’re having issues with someone like this, don’t look to the NFL for sympathy—they deal with people like these on a daily basis. Sometimes the individual’s behavior is so far beyond acceptable limits that management has to do something for the good of the team. Sometimes they simply have to cut him loose, even if it costs millions of dollars to so.

Midway through the season, Terrell Owens became the poster child for the hazards of dealing with high-maintenance people. Undeniably talented, his ability to catch passes for the Philadelphia Eagles was eclipsed by the furor he caused in the locker room and in the press. He feuded with management, he feuded with his quarterback, and he feuded with world at large for not recognizing his 100th touchdown reception with enough fanfare. He embarrassed his team in the media when interviewed without the presence of his mouthpiece/agent to the extent that the Eagles decided they were better off without T.O. They suspended him without pay before releasing him, presumably (at this writing) to be picked up by another team that thinks he can be managed. Keeping in mind the Eagles were the NFC champions last year and that Owens had a lot to do with getting them there, one gets an appreciation for just how draconian getting rid of T.O. really was.

Just about everyone who has managed a sales force has had to deal with high-maintenance people, the worst of whom achieve the status of fully-fledged prima donnas. At what point do such people outlive their usefulness to the team and how does a manager interdict that process to salvage them? This depends on the manager, of course, and his or her tolerance for such people. For most organizations, regardless of size, there comes a time when the point of diminishing returns becomes a reality, and action must be taken.

High producers often get away with murder, particularly when they are present in numbers. A mega-mortgage bank from a decade ago (since acquired), was famous for caving into its sale force on everything from commissions to behavioral disputes. The people managing them sardonically referred to corporate’s attitude as “managing from their knees.” On one occasion, a loan officer actually threatened the life of an assistant underwriter and was never so much as reprimanded. Senior management did nothing because this person was “one of our top performers” and the injured party was begged not to report the threat to the authorities, no matter how seriously it was taken.

More typical is the realistic approach taken by a senior executive upon receiving a complaint about an AE who blew up in front of the entire office at an underwriter who was holding up a transaction. The scene caused a major morale shrinkage and the underwriter and her team were in danger of quitting. The AE was unrepentant and the manager feared a permanent rift between the AE and the rest of the production team. “Well, let me ask a question first,” the exec said. “What kind of month is she having?”

It’s a fine line between “high-maintenance” and “can’t live with ’em.” Having the right management perspective is essential to knowing which is which. John Volpe, CEO of Nova Home Loans in Tucson, Ariz., feels the analogy between business and football is entirely valid. A top loan officer in his own right, Volpe understands both the management and production sides, and believes that the head coach’s first job is communication. A good head coach can only build a championship team if he or she communicates their philosophy effectively, because otherwise, he says, “You have players going in opposite directions.”

Does a heavy team orientation leave room for a high performer to stretch his or her wings and occasionally become demanding? Yes, as long as “demanding” doesn’t get out of hand. It doesn’t mean your deals are more important than someone else’s deals when competing for company resources, it doesn’t mean you are “better” than anyone else in the organization, even if your job is higher in profile than others. “Team” means individuals striving as a unit to achieve a result; tantalizingly simple in concept if dauntingly difficult to create in reality.

“The head coach needs to instill and enforce a ‘team’ philosophy within his players,” according to Volpe. “You will occasionally come across a few prima donnas who poison the rest of the team, making it difficult to win championships,” he said. “Usually the players end up driving that prima donna off the team. If not, then the head coach must do so.”

But what about the uber-talented player like Terrell Owens, who can turn a game around with a catch? What can you do when an impact player like Owens brings in business but impacts the team negatively? Owens is a key player, Volpe observes, but if you look closely, he tends to slack off and not block for the ball carrier downfield if the ball isn’t thrown to him. In other words, he gets lazy and doesn’t help the team. “This would be the same as one of my LO assistants refusing to take a phone call from a borrower who was working with another LO assistant of mine who happened to be out of the office due to illness. The attitude of an Owens-type loan officer is, ‘Hey, this is not my deal. Why should I waste my time and energy on this phone call when I could be working on one of my own deals?'”

This is where, Volpe believes, a manager has to be creative. Not only with instilling a team ethic to prevent such things from happening, but also by modifying the compensation approach to bring about the behavior he seeks. “I don’t pay my LO assistants commissions based on their individual deals,” he says. “Instead I pay tiered bonuses on our entire team’s production. Now, if one of my LO assistants is on vacation or sick, another LO assistant will take that call and cover for his teammate.”

At some point, if the team member doesn’t come around, the manager has to act. What is that point? It happens when someone is irretrievably negative to point of adversely affecting the attitudes of other team members. It’s happened to most of us, when one person stirs up so much resentment, controversy, drama, and bitterness they simply have to go. In Volpe’s football analogy, “It’s the head coach’s job to cut that player from the team.”

Barry Habib agrees. As the nationally renowned sales trainer for CTX Mortgage and the CEO of the Mortgage Market Guide, he’s dealt with thousands of sales professionals and their managers over the years. He has also originated over $1.7 billion in personal production, so he understands the dynamics of the origination environment and the importance of teamwork.

“I’ll never be held hostage,” he says. “The graveyards are full of irreplaceable people. If you give in, you’ll never grow a team. You have to try to bring them around, but you have to cut out a cancer. You’ll build a team and send a clear message to other potential problems on the team.”

He is quick to acknowledge that high performers very often require higher maintenance and time involvement from management, but it has to be in a positive vein, not putting the manager in a defensive bind. “Some people need a little extra TLC and that’s fine,” said Habib, “but if it’s consistent and making everyone negative, it’s time to make some serious decisions.” Individual production is important, obviously; no origination company can live without it. But teamwork and holding true to the management vision of growth and success is more important, Habib believes. “When a bad attitude or a prima donna is affecting attitudes in the company and sabotaging things the leadership is trying to accomplish, it’s too much,” he said.

Every situation is different, so it’s important that managers research them fully. It is much easier to accept the first version you hear (especially if from a trusted supervisor), but those are often tainted by emotion and personal involvement. Consider these simple points:

  • Filter out the “he said, she said” noise and research incidents carefully.
  • Conduct a counseling session with parties involved in disputes to uncover the issues. If a recurring event, it is likely a trend. Have incidents documented so you can be specific during counseling. If a personality conflict, determine whether reassigning team members can help reduce the drama.
  • Make a judgment call. If you are losing other valuable team members because of one person’s attitude or communication style, OR if they are undermining the team effort a la Terrell Owens, it’s time to take action.
  • Be tolerant, but don’t tolerate. If you let things fester, a small wound can become infected.
  • Don’t lose good people you can grow with; lose the ones who threaten your growth goals.
  • Consider re-vamping compensation policies to weed out “us vs. them” attitudes.

The Terrell Owens’ of this world have one thing in common: it’s all about them. Owens, if you’ve seen him interviewed, speaks with great conviction that he is the victim of lesser mortals, not the root cause of the controversies that swirl around him. He may actually believe it, and that he alone speaks “the truth.” Likewise, your “problem child” might truly believe he or she is speaking “the truth” when describing the incompetence of their support teams or other persecutions they are subject to because of their innate superiority. As a manager, face such situations with great objectivity, for nothing is as it seems when someone truly believes it is all about them.

Managing a team, or “head coaching,” as Volpe might put it, would be awfully easy if it weren’t for all those pesky employees managers need to make the business work. As Habib observed, the thoroughbreds make life interesting, challenging, and fun for a manager, but there can come a time when they become overly high-maintenance.

By the time you read this, chances are pretty good that Terrell Owens will be finishing out the season someplace else, perhaps that favorite place for NFL problem children, the Oakland Raiders.

Unlike the managers in your business, Owens’ managers get a few Terrell-free months during the year. If you fail to keep your house clean and your team pulling in the same direction, you’ll never have a day off.

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