March 1, 2024

The Next Level: Further Thoughts on the Brilliant Jerk

The Next Level

Avoiding the pitfalls of fast growth.

In my first post for this blog, I wrote that I wanted my posts to provide a forum for “debate and disagreement” on what it takes for a company to grow fast. Well, that didn’t take long. One week later, my post on what to do with a “Brilliant Jerk” sparked plenty of debate and disagreement. In fact, the overwhelming majority of commenters disagreed with me — although I did get some support from people who actually own and run businesses.

If nothing else, I seem to have united the Brilliant Jerks around the country, which is good. I respect Brilliant Jerks; they do invaluable work for start-ups and small businesses. In my post, I may have even gone overboard explaining how invaluable their contributions are in the early phase of a company. I wanted to give them their due.

But times change. What the start-up really starts to grow, the entrepreneur needs to bring on new people and adopt new strategies that can undermine the Brilliant Jerk’s self-worth and identity. For example, in rapid growth, entrepreneurs who identify winners on the front line may need to promote them two, three or even  four levels at a time. You have to push these winners to the top. The team will applaud and embrace these new leaders but the Brilliant Jerk won’t.

In a fast growth company, he becomes the Grinch who steals growth, which is why he has to go. This can be hard to understand unless you have experienced the fragile environment of rapid growth when you are adding customers and employees by the dozens and sometimes hundreds. Everything is thin – time, cash and management. It is like driving a race car across thin ice, and you certainly do not need anyone jumping up and down and screaming and distracting from the larger cause.

Many of the comments suggested that maybe I was just a bad manager. There is probably some truth to those comments — entrepreneurs, admittedly, are not always great managers or developers of people. But there are times when those skills are all but irrelevant. In rapid growth, you need leaders who take action. If you want to remain a small company, spend your time managing and pacifying the Brilliant Jerk. But if you want to grow your company, then you have to grow up, lead and put others before yourself. You need a team that wants to be lead, not managed.

When my start-up put 150 additional people on the payroll in one month, it took everyone on the team wanting the person next to them to succeed. There were no Brilliant Jerks to be found in that group. Fast growth is not about happiness and who keeps the coffeepot full. It is a team sport. When you walk into a meeting, you are there to make everyone else better. In a fast growth company, you either add energy to the company or take it. The Brilliant Jerk sucks the life out of a company. Every minute you spend consoling the Brilliant Jerk is a minute you take from customers and, by the way, it is the customers who pay the bills.

Some of the commenters suggested that this is really about entrepreneurs being greedy. That’s not how I see it. When fast growth takes off, the entrepreneur is usually “all in” — with his house, a second mortgage, savings, college funds all on the line. Greed would be milking the Brilliant Jerks, who are generally very high producers, for everything they are worth. Guts is accepting the short-term financial pain of letting a big producer go for the long-term gain of the company. Most of the time, you are watching revenue walk out the door. It is a gutsy gamble but the right one.

Some commenters asked how I could just toss away a dedicated, smart employee. Well, I can tell you after we discovered he could not work in a culture of growth, it should have taken me three months to let him go instead of three years, and boy, did I try everything over those three years. I promoted him to chief operating officer, and I sent him home to work by himself and gave him special assignments. Nothing worked – the Brilliant Jerk needs singular recognition in a controlled environment.

The reality is, I waited too long. And that was the purpose of writing my blog post – to introduce the Brilliant Jerk so that when entrepreneurs recognize one in their organizations, they don’t wait three years to figure out what has to be done. It is not easy. You will have gone through so much together. When I finally walked into that room and said, “it’s time to go,” we both cried.

One last thing – let’s clear up the Steve Jobs issue. He was not a Brilliant Jerk; he was a Brilliant Entrepreneur who always put the Apple brand and his products way ahead of himself. But if you read his biography, you will understand that he had to be fired. That gave him the opportunity to learn from his mistakes and become a better leader. If he had been a Brilliant Jerk, he would have continued to whine about getting fired from Apple and played the victim – “Oh, they were so mean to me.” Instead, he was a leader who moved on and made history as one of the greatest entrepreneurs ever.

In a fast growth company, rule No. 1 is no whining allowed. Period. And no second-guessing. Period. Happily, however, that rule does not and should not apply to blog posts. I look forward to reading your comments.

Cliff Oxford is the founder of the Oxford Center for Entrepreneurs.

Article source: http://boss.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/10/03/further-thoughts-on-the-brilliant-jerk/?partner=rss&emc=rss

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