Dealing with the ego of top performers

An interesting side comment in an interview with Sir Clive Woodward was when he was asked about how, as coach, you deal with a captain, or indeed any player, who won’t listen and play to the coach’s strategy.  

I thought I'd share the insights here as there are some interesting lessons on leadership for business leaders!

Sir Clive admitted that he had run into difficulties with top players, brilliant stars in their own right, who believed they knew better than him, who refused to listen to his coaching and who would not play to the strategy he wanted to follow. 

And he said he had ultimately on occasions decided that to achieve the best performance from the team as a whole, he could not have that person in the team and dropped them despite their talent.

And the impression I got (although I may have been coloured by own experiences) was that it was not just the fact that they wouldn’t follow his strategy themselves, but more importantly that they also detracted from the coherence of the team as a whole.  

As I say I’ve encountered that situation myself a few times and have learnt that sometimes you have to do without the best performer because the damage they do to the team outweighs the value they create.  

Indeed to go further, I’ve also learnt that sometimes you have the situation where the performance of a team is held back by someone who is broadly competent, but is gently, or even openly, negative in their effect on others around them.

It is critical that you as a the leader address this in some way.

Sometimes coaching or development of the individual can work, sometimes they need to be moved to somewhere where their impact is less significant, but you must deal with it. It is your job - and why business leaders are generally paid well.

To abdicate is to accept mediocre teams and ‘adequate’ performance rather than the passion and commitment led excellence we all aspire to!

And, as is usual, I’ll just add the caveat, that management is never simple.

 I can also think of situations where a good business leader has to create a structure that can cope with egocentric and maverick top performers, that enables them to perform and somehow prevents them wreaking too much havoc with others.

The classic case is the arrogant top sales person.  People in  this role often come with some ego (indeed it is that ego and arrogance that enables them to walk up to a senior manager at a major client and ‘demand’  to be listened to).

The operational problem is that such an ego often upsets others in the business.  But you need them there and you need them performing.

The good news is that it is also of the nature of that job that it is a lonely role and fortunately they are rarely in the office, so it can usually be managed.  You just have to accept that part of your job is to keep trying to get them back down to earth when they are in the office and to keep trying to get their less egocentric colleagues to live with the behaviour!

The key is really that you ensure they, and everyone, knows that whilst you will tolerate it to a degree, there is a boundary.  If they go too far, and upset too many people too often, then the value they create is outweighed by the cost of them to the team. Ultimately you have sometimes, as Sir Clive admitted he had, to decide that someone is just not prepared to learn any more, and that the the team as a whole will perform better without them.

Which brings me to a final point. Sir Clive talked about these players as thinking they had nothing to learn, that they knew all the answers.

That reminded me of research from a few years ago that said that whilst top business leaders have, because of their jobs, to appear very confident to the rest of the world, when you get beneath the veneer you discover that they are on the most self-critical, ‘desperate to learn how to be better’, end of the spectrum.

Their very success is a consequence of their continuous drive to learn how to be a better leader!