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.

Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder, CEO, and author of Spin Sucks, host of the Spin Sucks podcast, and author of Spin Sucks (the book). She is the creator of the PESO Model and has crafted a certification for it in partnership with Syracuse University. She has run and grown an agency for the past 15 years. She is co-author of Marketing in the Round, co-host of Inside PR, and co-host of The Agency Leadership podcast.

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