The cornerstone of consulting excellence is the quality of the consulting staff. So how do you make the decision on who is high quality and who isn’t?
Two factors come into play: performance and cultural fit.
Performance is easily measured by utilization, realization, client satisfaction and revenue generation. If you don’t already objectively target and measure the above, start. More postings on this later. A high performer will be at 100% of targets in almost any give 12 month rolling period.
Cultural fit assumes you have a culture to which being a fit is rewarding. If you don’t place any effort on cultural excellence inside your firm, you should – see my previous post on mission as a foundation to culture. I’ll write more on cultural excellence in later posts. In the meantime, use observed teamwork, client sat and general “does this person get along well with others” as a proxy.
Using the above, everyone will fall into one of four categories, listed below by ease of corrective action.
High Performer, Gets the Culture
This is the easy one. Do what you must to keep these people on the team and pay them plenty of attention. The majority of your personnel management time should be focused on this group of people.
Low Performer, Doesn’t Get the Culture
Fire them. They may have room for improvement, but you don’t have time to do it. After you are done, review your hiring procedures to find out why they even got a job with you in the first place.
Low Performer, Gets the Culture
This is a little harder. This person will fit in extremely well with their teammates, do well with clients (at least in terms of personality) and be generally a good fit for all the cultural elements of the firm. However, period over period, their performance will be below their peer group, their work will be substandard and you’ll find yourself always accepting or making up making up reasons for their poor performance.
Get them on a 90 day plan that specifically addresses the performance shortcomings. Invest the time to make sure they have a more than fair chance. The extra effort you invest, if they improve, will be more than paid off in loyalty, a strengthened corporate culture and improved performance. If they don’t improve, you must fire them. A consultancy is a meritocracy, not a remedial education program – consistent low performers have no long term role on the team.
High Performer, Doesn’t Get the Culture
This is the hardest category to manage. Top performance on a consistent basis makes these people very valuable to the firm. Poor cultural fit makes them very hard to work with. So, you’ll find them to be top revenue producers, but will often find they work poorly on project teams, care little about the impact of their behaviors on those around them and on occasion will cause client satisfaction issues.
What to do? Counsel, counsel and more counsel – this is the group that should consume the second biggest amount of your personnel management time. During performance management reviews, you’ll have to spend your time consistently coaching them on better behavior and matters of emotional intelligence. Change will be slow – their cultural fit will only improve to the extent you can show them how it will make their lives easier or increase their personal performance. Ultimately, this group is like Dennis Rodman – a top performer whose high-maintenance personality only makes them employable as long as the performance stays high. When the performance slips, they give you no reason to continue their maintenance.
I saw a great article today by Thomas Hoffman from CIO.com’s RSS feed (it was written by Hoffman in June 2008 and originally published in Computerworld). The title is “Narcissists at work: How to deal with arrogant, controlling, manipulative bullies”. In it, Hoffman documents his interview with Jean Ritala, the co-author of “Narcissism in the Workplace“.
In the post (and related book), Ritala doesn’t deal with narcissism as a garden-variety swollen ego, but rather deals with it as a significant, and corporately problematic, emotional disorder defined as “…a condition characterized by an inflated sense of self-importance and an extreme preoccupation with one’s self.”
The NIH lists the following as the symptoms of a narcissistic personality disorder:
- Reacts to criticism with feelings or rage, shame, or humiliation
- Takes advantage of others to achieve own goals
- Has feelings of self-importance
- Exaggerates achievements and talents
- Is preoccupied with fantasies of success, power, beauty, intelligence, or ideal love
- Has unreasonable expectations of favorable treatment
- Requires constant attention and admiration
- Lacks empathy
What struck me is this list is a behavioral primer for almost every “mostly-successful” entrepreneur, C-Level and senior consultant with whom I have ever worked.
I’ve found that these people are “mostly successful” as they generally receive significant financial rewards or advancement, but are considered high maintenance to work with or less than desirable to work for. For entrepreneurs, they tend to never get a business beyond 50 people or about $20 million. For C-levels, they tend to hit the VP (often sales), CIO or COO slot in their 30’s, but never get to the CEO seat and often change jobs every few years. For consultants, they tend to be VERY product knowledgeable, but I usually see a recurring pattern of two-year job shifts combined with significant contract work. Overall, I generally see these people peak in their 30’s and 40’s and never do much beyond that.
Exceptions exist of course. And, not everyone that has some of these characteristics is a narcissist in its strict definition as an emotional disorder.
You may now ask, “So what? They’re assh*les. Move on”. The problem isn’t them, its what they do to you and the organizations for which you work.
In a consultancy, these people kill project teams results, guarantee write-offs, destroy customer trust, and foster peer level conflicts via being critical, lying, taking credit for other’s work, and pointing the finger when things go wrong. If you see this behavior, DON’T excuse it as the price we pay for finding skilled people or driving high billed hours – get HR involved, document the behavior and correct it or get rid of the person doing it.
In a client, this kind of person will make your life a bleak living hell as your ability to manage to scope is limited by their particularly self-involved world view. Every issue will be your fault, every problem your’s to solve, every success their’s to claim. My usual course of action is to document (and document and document), find another champion inside the client to help me manage the person, and, if I can’t work around them, I pull our team. If I can’t, next chance I get I jack their hourly rate as a “jerk fee” but then get us out as quickly after that as I can. I’d love to say that confronting them with the behavior, esp. in an intervention-style environment works, but my experience shows that it doesn’t when they work for the client.
Inside your own leadership team, this behavior will manifest itself in very clear ingrained behaviors. Managers will point fingers rather than accept responsibility, accountability will become impossible, and your best people will leave, particularly those that report to the person manifesting the narcissistic behaviors. Those that are left behind will either be stuck for personal reasons (usually financial) or will be the second tier who are not energetic enough to find the best solutions to problems (if they could, they’d quit). Overall, you team’s performance will decline over time (or at best, never improve). From the top down, follow the same advice I give for consulting staff. However, if the problem is above you (esp. in the CEO seat), your choices are limited since HR will usually be ineffective talking to the owner or CEO. Some people will respond to upward coaching (calmly, thoughtfully and respectfully done) especially when its done from long time trusted staff member or peer. However, if the traits are too deeply engrained, you’ll find that the choice is not how to change them but how you change your job.
By the way, I’ve been accused of 3, 5 and 6. Especially by my wife:).