Why scaling businesses can’t afford the brilliant jerk

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In the TV trope pantheon, the enfant terrible is a well-known figure. An unconventional figure, undeniably brilliant, who is single-minded and intellectually dominant. They flout convention and they get results.

And, frequently, they are jerks. Brilliant jerks, sure - but jerks nonetheless. It’s not just TV, though. There’ve been brilliant jerks on every football team you’ve ever supported, every school you’ve attended and (hopefully) every company you’ve worked for.

A growth company needs enablers, not disablers

The psychologist Dr Josephine Perry has seen her share of mavericks. “I mainly work with athletes, and often in teams you’ll get a couple of mavericks that people will want on teams because they’re phenomenal athletes,” says Perry. “But they can be incredibly difficult to manage.”

“The real important thing with mavericks is to make clear where the boundaries are that you won’t cross. Mavericks love to push boundaries."

The brilliant jerk is an established part of startup lore, too. Writing in the New York Times, the American entrepreneur Cliff Oxford recounted firing his brilliant jerk; an amazing startup talent. As Oxford’s business grew, shifting from nascent startup to growth stage, the brilliant jerk tried to “maintain his glory” and in doing so “struggled to let us go and grow”.

“A growth company needs enablers, not disablers,” writes Oxford, explaining his decision to let the employee go.

Netflix’s CEO Reed Hastings has been even more militant about the issue, noting in the past: “Some companies tolerate them. For us, the cost to effective teamwork is too high.”

There’s a different character background you need as a startup than when you move to scale up.

Or, as Prelude Group managing director Emma-Jane Packe put it during a panel at last year’s The Pitch: “It’s better to have a hole than an asshole”. Referring to her own experience of firing an unruly individual, Packe noted: “It was hard because I couldn’t fire him because of incompetence, but I made that decision as a leader. And often, the person you fire and the reason you let them go can make a more positive impact on the team than promoting someone.”

It definitely seems that patience for the enfant terrible is wearing thin. Uber joined this chorus recently when, after yet more workplace harassment accusations and turmoil, board member Arianna Huffington loudly proclaimed there would be no more hiring of brilliant jerks.

“I’ve definitely seen it both in my own startups and the startups I’ve worked with,” says Mike Jackson, founder of the internet incubator Webstart Bristol. “There’s a different character background you need as a startup than when you move to scale up. When you’re a startup, you want people that challenge everything; that make you think twice before you double down on any decision.”

The real important thing with mavericks is to make clear where the boundaries are that you won’t cross.

At an early stage, a person’s contribution is largely down to their technical competence. As the business develops and begins to form its values, the needs of the company change and a maverick individualist might struggle to adjust.

“Inherently one of the factors these people don’t have is being teamed players,” says Jackson. “They tend to be brilliant individualists. They won’t accept the will of the majority and they’ve no interest in working with the majority, either.”

 Jackson thoughts closely align with Prelude's Packe. "When you're starting to scale-up, you need a strong culture whatever that might be," she notes. "The jerk element might just be that they don't fit your culture. They might not be bad apples, it may just be they're the wrong person for that company.

When someone isn't performing, Packe advises asking yourself: is it a values issue, a will issue, or a skills issue? "You can quite quickly identify when its a values issue," she says. "They are just not fitting in. If they're becoming a cultural terrorist i.e. you're losing people or its affecting performance of others, you need to stamp it out quite quickly."

The situation isn’t completely hopeless, though. Jackson notes that employees can always evolve - but mostly, he warns, sometimes they simply can’t. If that is the case, he agrees with Packe's prescription: the simple answer is to transition them out of the business.

All of this returns to Dr Perry's earlier point on boundaries. “You as a manager or business you need to know where those boundaries are, communicate them and be strict that if someone crosses those boundaries, that’s your limit," says Dr Perry. "Rather than just letting certain people get away with it because they bring in a lot of money. Otherwise, you risk a huge amount of resentment from the rest of your staff.”

And, if the situation isn’t effectively managed, it might be investors that force the issue. “Often it’s the investors - who initially invested because of the brilliance - who realise before the founders it's time to change the makeup of the company,” says Jackson.

These eventualities emphasise the importance of watertight shareholder agreements. “The people that you start up with, you may be best friends now but you also have to be realistic,” says Jackson.

“At some point in the future, you might not want to be in the same room together. If you prepare for it now, especially if they’re a co-founder, then you don’t need to drag the lawyers in later on.”


About Francois Badenhorst


Francois is the deputy editor of BusinessZone and UK Business Forums.


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05th Mar 2017 11:23

Nice article and I can understand the cautionary comments and, in some cases, clear bias against employing 'the brilliant jerks'. I hope that existing micro business owners aren't put off by these comments from either employing, collaborating or partnering 'mavericks' that have a different skill set and can see different opportunities from the owner.

I agree you can't 'manage' them so you need to negotiate a deal with them. They're not likely to be great team players either. Yet working with people that create something out of nothing - are entrepreneurial - is stimulating and still the fastest way of growing a micro enterprise.

If they share the owner's values and you can find a win-win way to share the reward of their brilliance then it can be much less of a risk in growing the business than borrowing or investors.

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12th Oct 2017 09:18

"A growth company needs enablers, not disablers". This quote really says it all for me. I am currently part of a growing company and we have all sorts of characters working here including the one you have mentioned. They create an atmosphere of negativity that has no room in our organization.

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