Gini Dietrich

Fire the Prima Donna! Three Reasons it Will Save Your Business.

By: Gini Dietrich | November 12, 2012 | 

A couple of weeks ago, Scott Forstall, the Apple executive in charge of iOS and the maps debacle associated with the iPhone 5 release, was categorically fired.

According to Gigaom, Forstall was asked to co-sign (with Apple CEO, Tim Cook) an apology letter to customers for the maps issue. He refused, which looks to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Though he’d been with the company – and Steve Jobs – since the NeXT days, his Jobs-like behavior (minus the genius) was too much for the more calm and collected Cook. It has even been reported there was silent jubilation when it was announced he was no longer with the company.

Which brings us to a very good lesson: Too often the prima donnas are revered because they create a ton of revenue or build amazing products, but do so much damage to morale and culture they’re rarely worth keeping around.

No Room for Prima Donnas

I’m sure you know the type. In fact, you may employ the type right this very second. It’s very common to think, “I can’t do without the revenue he/she generates” so we keep the person around even though we know it’s really bad for the culture we’re building.

But it’s not always a top revenue generator. It could be someone who has built the right relationships with the decision makers.

Case in point, we once had an employee who was very young and didn’t yet generate any revenue, but my second in command loved her. She did a ton of damage, particularly to our interns and newly graduated young professionals and there was a lot of back stabbing and low morale. It went against everything I was building, culture-wise, but I couldn’t convince our COO to let her go.

Eventually our COO left and so did this young woman (not by her own choice) and I was amazed at how quickly morale turned around. In fact, the culture I fought so hard to build began to happen naturally and I know longer had to fight the uphill battle.

Fire the Prima Donna

It’s not an easy decision to make. That’s why they say hire slowly and fire quickly.

Executive coach Scott Eblin offers three reasons you should fire the prima donna today. He says, “You’ll get more from the rest of your team, you’ll send the right message, and you’ll save yourself headaches in the future.”

Let’s dissect each of those reasons.

  1. You’ll get more from the rest of your team. Like Apple employees were silently celebrating with the news of Forstall’s firing and my team’s attitudes changed when we let our prima donna go, your team will do the same. Right now they spend a lot of their time complaining about the prima donna, which is preventing them from doing their very best work. You’ll be surprised at how that revenue you think you’re going to miss is quickly made up with a more productive team.
  2. You’ll send the right message. Most of your team is looking at you to lead by example. If you allow the prima donna to continue ruling the roost, the only message you’re sending is that money is the most important thing and you’re willing to let people behave badly if it means you can put more dollars in your pocket at the end of the year. If that’s true, by all means, let your prima donnas continue to ruin your culture. But if culture and team collaboration is important to you, get it done!
  3. You’ll save yourself headaches in the future. It’s going to hurt in the short-term. You may have to work twice as hard to fill the empty pipeline left when you fire the prima donna. In fact, it may by you, yourself, who has to pick up the slack on top of your already full day. Think of it as a long-term investment. It’ll hurt right now, but eventually you’ll come out better for having made the cut.

What other lessons do you have for business leaders when it comes to firing the prima donna?

A version of this first appeared in my weekly Crain’s Chicago Business column.

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • There’s an old adage in the sales world: give your best rep just enough rope to hang themselves with.

    • @jasonkonopinski Ha! It is usually the sales guys who have this reputation. They don’t follow the rules everyone has follows because they think they’re king and above the law. It’s a morale breaker.

      • @ginidietrich I’ve worked with a few that earned every bit of that reputation, too. Almost became one of those myself, I’m ashamed to admit, early in my career. Thankfully, I wised up.

    • @jasonkonopinski A lot of truth in that. Unfortunately the best sales guys are very good at negotiating more rope…

  • Thanks a lot  for this. The importance of getting rid of prima donnas reminds me of a counter-intuitive model for spotting the most detrimental staff in your business.
    Imagine a 2 x 2 matrix, with axes representing good fit <-> bad fit (where ‘fit’ refers to cultural/social fit within the organisation), and highly effective <-> ineffective .
    Your best staff are, logically enough, good fit + highly effective. So, intuitively you expect the worst staff to be bad fit + ineffective. 
    Of course, in reality these people are fairly benign… and the worst case is bad fit + highly effective. It is these people – like the prima donnas you’re speaking about – that spread a negative culture in the most insidious way, and who need to be removed.
    I hope that description makes sense… y’know it’s much easier to explain with a magic marker and flipchart!! 🙂

    • @howwwl Or… one bad apple spoils the bunch. I’d love to see you explain this with a magic marker and flipchart!

    • @pmayze Tell me about Howwwl. I’m on the site now. Looks very cool!

      • @ginidietrich  @pmayze Thanks for stopping by! The idea is to help out the 90% of people (like me) who have tried blogging and, um… kind of sucked at it (like me). So people don’t have to maintain a blog there, or promote themselves – anyone posts on any topic at any time. 
        Again… I’m better with a magic marker… 😉

        • @pmayze I was reading through the Q&A and I like what I see. I also like the gamification you’ve put in there. Is it available in the U.S. yet? I could see some clients wanting to try it.

        • @ginidietrich Seriously, that’s great to hear 🙂 We’re based in the UK right now but the site is open to all. Still making a number of functional improvements (i.e. we are still in Beta) so I’d love any input you have if you’ve got time!

        • @pmayze I’ll definitely play around with it. Give me a couple of weeks.

        • @ginidietrich Thanks Gini – We’ll have a new update out this weekend too. It will make things that little bit lovelier. We hope. 🙂

  • belllindsay

    @jasonkonopinski Another great one I love is “failing up” – and it’s usually the prima donnas who are the ones doing it. In fact I left a company once for this exact reason – where the amount of “failing up” of certain people was never ending.

  • Wow, I hope my boss doesn’t read this!

    • belllindsay

      @TonyBennett Damn. I wish I had thought of that one. 😉

      • @belllindsay yeah, I’m good for a laugh every other month. look out for January’s comment, it’s still in draft status, it’ll be LEGENDARY!!

    • @TonyBennett I hope not, too! You big prima donna, you!

  • maryanneconlin

    I think we often mistake “one hit wonders” for geniuses. This , it seems often leads to the prima dona acting like, well..a prima dona. Managing a prima dona sometimes means restraining yourself or key members of your staff in creating one in the first place. So, I’d have to add, after hiring smartly, make sure you check yourself when your star does something outstanding and remember, behind every star is a tremendous team of talented people.
    Yea, it’s hard.

    • @maryanneconlin Not always though…in the case of my prima donna, she was very young and very inexperienced, but had the heart of a decision maker. She didn’t have any helping her. In fact, no one would. But they also didn’t complain directly to me so it took me a long time to find the cancer.

  • If you let the cancer eat your insides it doesn’t matter what the outside looks like, the bough will break.

    • @Joshua Wilner/A Writer Writes I can’t think of anything nice to say. I was going to make fun of you like I just did @rdopping . You lucked out. I’m going to be nice.

      • @ginidietrich  I almost spit out my coffee. A Bears fan, who is a cyclist and an introvert is going to be mean. You are too nice to be mean.

        • @Joshua Wilner/A Writer Writes I wish you had spit out your coffee.

        • @ginidietrich  You are too nice. I don’t take it seriously. Better head over to see the fine folks at the Wiener Circle. 😉

  • rdopping

    When I interviewed at the firm where I now work my current employer said to me that they don’t hire people who don’t roll up their sleeves and get the job done. No prima donna’s in this firm, he positioned. Did I believe him? Not really. I have never worked in an Architectural firm that doesn’t have at least one.
    Well, I had a tough time finding one and when they hired one mistakenly last years the guy only lasted 2 months. Gone! I now use the same line when interviewing for my team. If you don’t think you need to work then this is not the place for you.
    BTW, I think they’re call douchebags in Canada.

    • @rdopping So how are you still employed?

      • rdopping

        @ginidietrich sheer luck and knowing when to duck.

  • terreece

    Great post @ginidietrich . This works for clients as well. I have had quite a few prima donna clients who suck the joy out of life for the entire crew that works with them. Eventually they all push their demands far past their value and begin to cost money instead of generate it. It took a long time to learn that clients have to match your culture, just like new hires.

    • @terreece Yes, you are right! We are actually going through this process internally right now…the “which clients are prima donnas” exercise. As a small business owner, it’s always hard to fire clients, but it always ends up being better in the end. And I know how much it means to my team that we are willing to put their sanity above a check.

      • terreece

        @ginidietrich Sanity vs check is one of the eternal small biz questions isn’t it? LOL! 
        Heather Whaling of prtini has a policy of not working with jerks. No apologies. When I heard that a lightbulb went off. Some clients still give me the shakes when I think about working with them! 🙂 
        But you really do have to look at what are these divas costing you outside of what they are bringing in, if you end up rocking in a corner after meeting with them, the cost is too freakin’ high!

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  • I enjoyed this one so much, Gini – that I decided to link to it in my blog post today. It is a little case study on Sloppy vs Disciplined – Leadership Lessons learned from the Dallas Cowboys and Denver Broncos
    Prima donnas can be an outright cancer. I couldn’t stand Carmelo Anthony when he was in Denver because he was a prima donna. Give me a team mentality, and the high morale and productivity that comes with it, vs petulant and spoiled superstar any day.

    • @dbvickery Or Lebron James! Ug. Can’t stand him.

      • @ginidietrich Taking his talents to South Beach…hey, King, don’t let the door hit ya!
        Actually, I was amazingly disappointed with LeBron. He had the opportunity to truly transcend the sport by staying in Cleveland at an economic time when they desperately needed a hero/rallying point and some “shining light”.
        Contrast that behavior with David Robinson and Tim Duncan…and even more recently Kevin Durant.

        • @dbvickery I don’t even mind his leaving Cleveland so much (though I agree with you). It was in how he handled it. It was awful.

  • Dan Wallace

    Great stuff, Gini.  It took me right back to a conversation you and I had over coffee three or so years ago :-).
    Pmayze has it exactly right as well, although I use slightly different words to describe it.  You want 100% of your people to be “Right Person/Right Seat.”  Right Person means they fit the culture.  Right Seat means they fit the job.  The 2 x 2 gets you this:
    Right Person / Right Seat – a keeper.  Find more of these!
    Right Person / Wrong Seat – fits the culture, but doesn’t fit the job.  Try very hard to find a role for this person in which he/she will excel.  If you can’t, then give them a hug and help them move on.
    Right Seat / Wrong Person – this is the prima donna, someone who is great at the job but doesn’t fit the culture.  Fire this person for all of the reasons Gini cited.
    Wrong Person / Wrong Seat – fits neither the culture nor the job.  I disagree with PMayze that this person is benign. He/she is toxic to the culture.  It is an easier decision to release this person from the company because he/she doesn’t perform well.  That doesn’t make it less toxic or less important.
    I agree completely with, and have personally witnessed, Scott Eblin’s three reasons to fire the prima donna.  I would add one more. . .if you’re clear about the values that drive your culture and you hire to them, you’ll replace the prima donna with someone who propels the company forward rather than dragging it down.

    • @Dan Wallace Yes, you’re right to call me up on that – wrong person/wrong seat is only *relatively* benign. They still need to be out of there. I prefer person/seat too, sounds a lot less pompous than my version, which always helps 🙂

      • Dan Wallace

        @pmayze Thanks!  First time ever that the words “less pompous” and my name have appeared in the same place.

    • @Dan Wallace I wrote a blog post that compelled Dan to comment. Yay!

    • @Dan Wallace Now that’s an entire post right there.

  • So very freakin true! Great post!

    • @jonmikelbailey I love anyone who says freakin!

      • @ginidietrich  @jonmikelbailey OK, well my 5 year old said it tonight. Wonder where she got it.

        • @AmyMccTobin  @ginidietrich I blame Gini, it’s her freakin fault!

        • @jonmikelbailey  @AmyMccTobin Booooo!

        • @ginidietrich  @jonmikelbailey Ha!  I tried to switch to flippin… thinking it was somehow better coming out of a 5 year old’s mouth. That, and she says “feed the damn dog” last night. I’m a bad, bad, but very expressive parent.

  • I know YOU don’t need this, Gini, but I want to add a caveat: “AFTER giving them clear feedback on why they’re the prima donna and how that needs to change.”
    I’ve seen a few situations–but worked at too few companies in my life to feel comfortable giving details–where the prima donna rules the roost. But I’ve also seen situations where someone has never been given feedback before they’re fired for “cultural fit” reasons, despite being effective in their job.  Yes, prima donna behavior is grounds to fire. But the right thing to do is to instruct someone as to how they need to improve, or offer to transition them mutually out if they would be a better fit for another culture. One firing can make someone essentially unemployable in the current job market, where even people with glowing references sometimes have trouble finding work.
    Now, if someone has heard, “You need to do X, Y, and Z to keep your job,” and there are not BIG changes RIGHT AWAY… absolutely fire them. I’ve seen this one, too, and was glad to see the back of the coworker concerned! But I was also reassured to see that I was working in an environment where someone who was behaving badly got clear feedback and a timetable to improve. Keep in mind that the strongest performers may not be the most confident people you employ (even if they seem like it outwardly) and that a coworker being fired seemingly without a chance to improve sends the message to everyone else, “This is what may happen to you if you screw up,” which can poison morale.
    Caveat to the caveat: Of COURSE there are situations where behavior is so out of line that instant firing is a necessity. However, if I’m ever in the position of inheriting a prima donna who has been rewarded for it in the past, I hope I will have the patience to give them clear and firm feedback and a timetable for improvement–and the courage to fire the prima donna if s/he doesn’t shape up even with that!

    • Dan Wallace

      @jelenawoehr Jelena, I deal with this issue in my work all the time.  See comment responding to PMayze below. 
      I agree, no one should be fired without knowing why and being given a chance to correct.  The foundation is having a set of core values that truly define your culture.  These have to be real, not aspirational.  “Real core values” are the principles of behavior, belief and attitude the violation of which will get you fired.  These frequently are not the values in the framed plaque on the wall.  Be clear about what the real values are.  Repeat them often.  Make them part of performance feedback.  Use them in every decision involving hiring, firing, reward, recognition and promotion.  That way, no one is surprised.
      When someone is not demonstrating the company’s values, they absolutely should be given a chance or two to make changes.  But values are pretty deeply rooted.  Changing them is difficult and rare.  Not having the company’s values doesn’t make someone a bad person – just a poor fit for that particular company.  If you really live your core values, people who have them will be attracted to your business. People who don’t will leave, usually of their own accord.

    • @jelenawoehr Oh for sure. There definitely should be feedback. The genesis for writing this was for the leaders (myself included) who let the prima donnas rule the roost simply because they generate a ton of revenue, even after feedback and reviews and being told over and over again they need to step it up.

      • @ginidietrich Totally. Or the ones who let the prima donnas rule the roost “because s/he’s improved so much” and then they feel unfair firing them, even though 90% improvement in prima donna behavior still means 10% totally unacceptable.

  • OMG Gini – when I was first promoted to VP of Sales after only 3 years with my company, I had one of these – and he was LOUD. He’d been the first sales rep. to gross $2 million, and even though that had been YEARS before and in a territory I knew should be doing more than double that, he carried this aura of mystique with him.  Most of management couldn’t stand him, and he was horrificly rude to our beloved and absolutely top notch customer service staff.  When I was promoted I promised I would try to work with him. My very first phone call was to him; I told him I wanted to make him the number one rep. in the company again. It was a nightmare, and at a sales conference an old, wisened manager from another company gave me this piece of advice: when you know they need to go, do it quickly. Don’t expend any of your energy on them – use it on the good ones.   At the 30 day mark I went to the President and said: I can’t do it.  He was fired, and the entire sales force breathed a collective sigh of relief. They kept asking “why did it take so long.”  It also gave me some serious street cred.
    Sorry for the long ramble, but it brought back so many memories.

    • @AmyMccTobin There is always the “why did it take you so long” murmured across the board when you finally let someone like this go. To @terreece ‘s point, we also do this with clients. If you’re not a good fit for us, we let you go.

      • @ginidietrich  @AmyMccTobin  @terreece Once upon a time I wrote a post: When is it Time to Fire a Client… I will have to go and dig it up:)

  • I just wish you could have given that youngster the axe sooner.  🙂
    I’ve been lucky to work over the years with people who were talented, dedicated and generous with their moral support.  I also worked with some talented jerks. Guess which ones are still going strong, and getting the most out of their folks?

  • GIGO. Cuz you never know how much the wrong person with the right revenue in, is costing you in what they drive away.

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  • Oh my do I know this energy thief all too well. Luckily not in my current company but plenty in the past and my poor husband is having to deal with one in his company now.

    • @KristenDaukas Ug. That’s so miserable. I’m so sorry for him.

      • @ginidietrich Even worse it’s his boss…

        • @KristenDaukas Oh nooooo. Get that man out of there!

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