Leading Difficult Star Performers
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Episode 4 Transcript:
Chris Curran: Growth Igniters Radio, Episode 4: Leading Difficult Star Performers.
This episode is brought to you by Business Advancement Incorporated, enabling successful leaders and companies to accelerate to their next level of growth. On the web at businessadvance.com. Now, here’s Pam and Scott.
Pamela Harper: Thanks Chris. I’m Pam Harper, founding partner and CEO of Business Advancement Incorporated. With me is my business partner and husband, Scott Harper
Scott Harper: Hi Pam, how you doing?
Pamela Harper: Just great today.
Scott Harper: Terrific. I’d like to remind people that the purpose of this Growth Igniters Radio series is to spark new insights and inspiration, and immediately useful ideas for leaders to take themselves and their companies to the next level of success. Pam, what’s on deck today?
Pamela Harper: Well, how many times have we spoken with CEOs and other top leaders who are faced with this dilemma of having a star performer, or even several stars, who are really difficult, disruptive forces?
Scott Harper: Oh, my gosh, yes.
Pamela Harper: Yes. It’s kind of a double-edge sword isn’t it?
Scott Harper: It is.
Pamela Harper: You hate to love them, and a lot of people love to hate them.
Scott Harper: That’s true. It’s hard to deal with it, because that they’re producing − but they’re also producing a lot of chaos.
Pamela Harper: Exactly. Well, we’re fortunate to have with us Dr. Leslie Austin, who is affectionately known as “The Lion Tamer.” She is an executive coach, psychotherapist and organizational consultant. She has the unique expertise of being able to help high achievers who create havoc in their companies go from dysfunctional to highly functional. She appears frequently in national and local media, including Nancy Grace and Headline News Network, and there’s a lot more. We’re so glad that you’re here. Welcome, Leslie.
Leslie Austin: It’s my great pleasure. Hi Pam. Hi Scott.
Scott Harper: How you doing?
Leslie Austin: Great.
Pamela Harper: Leslie, we have to ask before we do anything else − why do people call you “The Lion Tamer?”
Leslie Austin: It’s funny how that came about. I was in meeting with a group of fellow consultants, and I was talking about the kind of clients I worked with primarily at that time years ago − which were very successful, dysfunctional people who had very negative behaviors towards other people. This was the great, very successful guy − mostly guys, not all − the very successful guy who’s a bully or has an anger problem. I was hired to coach these guys so the company could keep them, because they were starting to be a danger to the company, both in terms of not being able to retain employees around them, or being potential walking law suits. I said to my co-consultants, “sometimes I feel like I’m a lion tamer.”
My mentor in the group said, “Oh, that’s your brand.” It stuck ever since. I hardly have to say anything more about what I do when I say, “I’m affectionately known as The Lion Tamer.” People get it.
Scott Harper: Oh, yeah.
Pamela Harper: They do. What are some of the ways that you’ve seen that difficult star performers can especially disruptive, and what kind of impact does it have on companies and teams in real life?
Leslie Austin: Let me just one thing before I answer that. That is, using the image of the lion tamer, there are two ways of approaching lion taming in the lion taming world and also in the coaching world. One is the image of the lion tamer with a whip and a chair, and the gun and the aggressive power of the lion.
Scott Harper: “Down Simba…”
Leslie Austin: That’s not my model. If you notice, my little logo is a smiling lion with a top hat and cane. That’s meant to represent a totally positive outlook on my clients. A totally positive framework for understanding their aberrant behavior and supporting them to shift it, and a totally positive focus on the outcome. It’s not about remedial work. It’s not about punishing. It’s not about finding fault. It’s about helping a difficult person get more insight and learn to behave and perceive their relationships different so that they really shine all across the board. This is very important in companies because when you have a star performer who’s a bully, or nasty to people, or doesn’t listen or doesn’t take leadership or guidance, you’ve got a problem because you’ve got a wild horse running around the meadow, and you can’t necessarily focus on them on what you want.
Pamela Harper: Well, that’s true.
Leslie Austin: Most of the time, those people think they’re being blocked, and that’s because they’ve been encouraged their entire career to think that they have to be a bully or they have to be aggressive in order to succeed. That’s the first thing I help people understand − it’s actually not only not true, but it’s self-destructive to think that way.
Pamela Harper: It’s really interesting that you say that, because I think compassion is such an important part of being able to be effective in coaching them.
Leslie Austin: Well, yes.
Pamela Harper: That’s what you’re talking about.
Leslie Austin: A lot of people think compassion is soft and mushy, and you make excuses for people. That’s not my version of compassion at all. My version of compassion is empathy, alignment, as much neutrality as you can get, and telling the truth, so that you have a dedication as a coach to a higher purpose. You want to support this person and the company they work in to optimize themselves to be the very best versions of themselves they know how to be. If this person is motivated enough to do that, then the whole company benefits. Not only financially, but the mood, the culture, all the people they work with − everybody benefits.
Scott Harper: Empathy is understanding, but not necessarily endorsement of the behavior.
Leslie Austin: You don’t endorse the behavior, but you don’t chastise or turn against the person. You have to understand that they’re behaving that way because that’s what they’ve learned to do. That’s how they’ve been rewarded all along in their careers. Often they don’t know that there’s a better way to be successful. I’ll talk about that in a second − what motivates them to change. If they are motivated, they often become way more successful even than they imagine they could be by taking the higher road and being much more strategic and much smarter about how they deal with other people while they’re accomplishing their goals.
Scott Harper: Do you have a quick example that comes to mind, Leslie?
Leslie Austin: Sure. These were most of my early client base for many years. For instance, there was a very, very senior guy in the global derivatives operations department of an international investment bank who was a total bully − he tried to control the guys in his department, and threatened people, and ran rough shod over them. Yet the guy was brilliant, and the bank didn’t want to lose him, but they were having trouble keeping the people around him. It was costing them a lot. They were afraid one day somebody would sue them for him being too abusive. This is frequently the motivation for [having me work with] these kinds of really brilliant, high success executives who have bad behaviors that have been supported and encouraged. The motivation is usually that somebody bigger and better than they are in their company says, “if you don’t get some coaching and do something about this, we’re going to have to let you go.”
Most of them function in a world that is small enough that if their company lets them go, everybody in their industry is going to know about it. They’re really up against the wall, and they are furious. They’re angry. They’re resentful. They don’t want to go for coaching but somewhere deep down inside, they know something’s wrong. They’re narcissistic.
Pamela Harper: They’re willing to do it?
Leslie Austin: It’s not so much that they’re willing. Many of them don’t really have a choice. The smart ones are willing, because they know something is up, but they don’t know what. They come into a first meeting with me suspicious and condescending, and petulant, and unwilling most of the time. The really smart ones come in curious.
Pamela Harper: Interesting.
Leslie Austin: Almost nobody comes in excited and motivated from this pool of clients.
My other pool of clients are really successful people whose skill-set is a little uneven across the board. For example, I dealt with a brilliant CFO of a multinational energy corporation, a global company, who was absolutely brilliant. All the people in the company loved him but he was absolutely terrible when he had to present in front of the board. They wouldn’t let him speak on investor calls even though he was the most knowledgeable and the most articulate, because he was terrible on investor calls.
Pamela Harper: But he was still a star?
Leslie Austin: He was star, but they couldn’t use him fully. His possibilities for possible advancement as CEO or another bigger position, or more visibility in front of the board, or In front of the investors [were limited] because it’s a publically traded company. He was very limited, and he was very frustrated. My job was to get him comfortable being fluid and spontaneous in front of the board. He did. He advanced. He’s very successful now, even more than he was. That’s the other pool of clients − people who are great who want to be super great.
Scott Harper: Here’s a question, Leslie: You’ve obviously done a lot of help for a lot of good people who’ve been difficult. But is there a time where a leader, say a CEO, has to say, “Look, we’ve given you enough chances. Enough is enough.” Where is that bright line?
Leslie Austin: Yes, there is the line. I’ve run across it only a few times. My agreement with my clients is that I can guarantee the quality of my coaching, but I can’t guarantee what your guy is going to do. He has to come fully to the table. I’m saying “he” because the majority of the executives I deal with are male − not all, but mostly. Forgive my use of that pronoun. The client is going to come to the table and I don’t know how much they’re really going to commit to participating until they start to get to know me. The ones who really commit absolutely can shift themselves and grow and optimize themselves. I know that sounds like lingo but they really learn how to make the best of themselves.
The ones who aren’t committed, who are still going to be territorial, who are still going to be competing with the boss, who won’t let go of insisting that they know better − those are the ones where my agreement with my client is: if this guy won’t really commit after a certain a period of time, if he’s still showing the same negative behaviors and we haven’t been able to shift him, I will by then understand his behavior patterns and personality so well that I will work with you about where to move him in the company where he’ll be optimized and not do so much damage. Or if you have to let him go, about how to let him go so he won’t destroy the company.
Scott Harper: Have you ever run across a case where that person is actually the head of the company at the very top? What do you then?
Leslie Austin: Well, the thing is they would have to be the one that hired me…
Pamela Harper: Or the board, if there were a board.
Leslie Austin: There’s an individual who writes the check. There’s always one person who’s the authority who ultimately is my client. That’s the person I answer to.
Pamela Harper: Okay. Sure. That makes sense. What you’re saying, though, is that when you’re leading difficult star performers, pretty much there is a lot that can be done, right?
Leslie Austin: Let me back up for one second. There’s a huge amount that you can do, but you have to understand you cannot lead a difficult star performer. You can guide them. You can motivate them. You can work with them to support them and encourage them but you cannot lead them. Why? Because they have developed their whole careers in a leadership mode. Most of the people who are in those kinds of positions will experience someone trying to lead them as either blocking them or competition.
Pamela Harper: Interesting point.
Leslie Austin: Their natural instinct is going to be to clobber the opposition. The gut response to what they’re being asked to do is, “no, why should I? I know what I’m doing.”
Pamela Harper: Okay. Well, that is a really good point.
Leslie Austin: Yeah. You have to take a different stance; it’s guiding, it’s collaborating. It’s helping someone be a better success. You always have to align with them, [showing] that what you want for them is the very best, and that they may have a couple of blind spots. You want to support them to get smarter and better and be the absolute best version of themselves they can be. I always tell my clients, “It’s not about changing yourself to become somebody different. It’s about refining and optimizing who you already are, and becoming a much better, smarter, more strategic version of yourself.”
Pamela Harper: That’s a very good point.
Well, we’re going to take a quick break. When we come back, we’ll talk more with Dr. Leslie Austin, “The Lion Tamer,” about what can be done to improve leading or rather now, I guess, I should say guiding difficult star performers. Stay with us.
Scott Harper: You’re listening to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper, brought to you by Business Advancement Incorporated − enabling successful companies to accelerate to their next level of innovation and growth. On the web at www.businessadvance.com. For exclusive offers and quarterly Harper reports highlighting emerging trends and issues in the business environment, go to www.growthignitersradio.com, and click the “join our community” button in the upper right corner.
Pamela Harper: Welcome back to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper. We’re talking with Dr. Leslie Austin, “The Lion Tamer,” about what can be done to improve guiding difficult star performers. Leslie, how can people find you?
Leslie Austin: You can always reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s the easiest and fastest way to get to me.
Pamela Harper: Easiest and fastest is always best.
We were talking in the last segment about a lot of the issues of why people can be difficult to lead. In fact, we can’t lead a star performer − that’s what you were saying, is that really it has to be something else.
Leslie Austin: You can invite them to be better.
Pamela Harper: I like that.
Leslie Austin: You really want to pick up on their own enlightened self-interest.
Pamela Harper: Let’s talk a little bit more about that, because we were just getting going on that. Can you tell us a little more?
Leslie Austin: Yes. Again, like I said earlier, it’s so important to look for and find what’s good about this person. What do they do well? At least from my perspective, because a lot of what I do is help people change behaviors in a way that is [not at all] formulaic. I have to learn every single person’s individual behavior patterns and responses, which is why when they do the work and we collaborate together, the kinds of changes they make in themselves are permanent. They feel seamless. I don’t want anybody to have a lot of “ah-ha” moments, but I want them three months later to turn around and say, “Well, I’m reacting so differently and so much better. How did that happen?” That’s because that person was motivated to learn how to observe how people are reacting to them.
Pamela Harper: It’s a real transformation?
Leslie Austin: It really is, and they have some blind spots often. People in this kind of situation often don’t know how to read or don’t care about reading other people’s reactions to them. That’s what gets them in trouble, because they don’t notice the executive assistant or the administrative assistant who they’ve just been disrespectful to, who can absolutely sandbag an important appointment. They don’t notice that they’re rude, and they don’t see the reaction, or they don’t hear when somebody’s not in agreement with them because they are convinced it’s right, and they’ll just ride roughshod. That’s the kind of thing that gets them in trouble. Part of my job is to invite them to get smarter and here’s the line:
“I don’t care whether you actually are this terrible person they’re describing you as or you actually are that mean. What I know is you’re being sent to work with me because you’re perceived that way. Because you’re perceived that way, that means you have the power to create a different kind of PR for yourself by sending different signals and behaving differently. In order to do that, you’re going to have to get smarter about observing what you’re doing and what reactions you’re getting.”
Notice that I’m depersonalizing. I’m not saying “You’re a good guy. You’re a bad guy. This behavior is terrible. How could you do that?” You can’t go there. What you really want to say is, “you have some control,” because these guys are almost all control freaks. They’re very narcissistic. You invite them to learn a different kind of control that will serve them, and serve everyone around them. It’s only after I know them that I talk about the highest good.
Pamela Harper: Well, that makes sense. Sometimes it seems like they really are clueless to the culture that is around them. That’s really what you’re saying isn’t it?
Leslie Austin: Yes, absolutely. Because they haven’t had to tune in. They haven’t been required to, up to that point in their career. They have been rewarded for being the lone wolf, being the aggressor.
Pamela Harper: But here’s the thing, even though they’re clueless, they manage to rise up into positions of power over, in many cases, so many people. I mean, I’ve seen this, and yet they’re so desensitized to the culture. It sounds like what you’re saying is, you have to teach them going back to the basics… or help them to learn going back to the basics.
Leslie Austin: Yes, I do. One of the reasons they come to such positions of power is that two of the areas of commerce in our culture that are very common in our industry are intimidation and money. Nothing speaks like intimidating other people − being scary to other people and bullying them into what you want. Or, making boat loads of money for them and yourself. Our industry has gone through maybe 20 years or so, or little bit more now, of being very focused on “the ends justify the means,” and they don’t.
Scott Harper: We’ve seen this a number of times, and dealt with it ourselves. The people who have these difficult folks in the organization get addicted to, as you say, “the money” and the production. “Let’s get the numbers…” and sometimes they’re not really noticing how much collateral damage is being done. Other good people are leaving, other deadlines are busted. It really has to be not just the difficult person who are adapting, but the folks who are living off of their good work [as well].
Leslie Austin: That’s exactly right. That kind of toxic behavior infects everybody around them. They’re living in a toxic environment. People who go home at night having to deal with a bully all day don’t have a good, happy, peaceful life because they’ve been attacked all day. Nobody thrives; therefore, the company doesn’t thrive. It’s a very fine line, but there are times when a company president or leader has to be brave enough and courageous and smart enough to know when to let go of or fire the big money maker, because the cost to the rest of the company is too significant. In every case that I’ve seen where that had to happen, the entire rest of the team stepped in and the company over the slightly long run ended up making far more money. There was far less employee illness, far less stress, all the side effects that show up for a company that are very costly. When you have employeesthat are having stress or smoking too much or eating badly because they’re stressed by a bully manager, that’s costing your company, and the insurance.
Pamela Harper: Absolutely.
Leslie Austin: There are all kinds of other areas that leaks over into. There are cases where no matter how horrified you are that this is your big sales guy, you may need to let him go and let the rest of the organization step up and maybe get somebody else in or not. You’d be surprised how an organization thrives once the toxic energy is removed.
Pamela Harper: That’s true. It takes a lot of courage as the leader to be able to make that call. You help them with that, too. We do too.
Leslie Austin: It’s rare. I mean most of the time, companies, to their credit, really want to save −in their own interest − they really want to save the [difficult] star performer if they possibly can. If the guy is willing to do it, it’s to everybody’s benefit.
Pamela Harper: It goes back to being compassionate again, and really, really getting that trust and confidence of the other person − that you’re there to really help them.
Leslie Austin: Yes. To me, it’s an old fashion question of honor. I know people don’t use that word now but I have a great sense of honor …
Scott Harper: It’s a great word.
Leslie Austin: … that I have been engaged to work with someone to help them become the best version of themselves they can be. I want to honor − and I’m going to use a nonbusiness word − to me, the sacredness of that trust to really be as positive and supportive of that person as I can, because I know something they don’t know: That is they’re actually suffering a lot, but they don’t know it because they think that’s how they have to be. My goal really is to also help them be a happier person in life. Then everybody benefits, and they make more money, and their company is more successful. It’s a win for everybody.
Pamela Harper: A win-win as they say. Well, Leslie, we’re going to take another quick break. When we come back, we’ll talk more with Dr. Leslie Austin, the Lion Tamer, about a powerful kind of coaching that can help not only difficult star performers, but others who are difficult to lead. Stay with us.
Scott Harper: You’re listening to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper, brought to you by Business Advancement Incorporated. On the web at www.businessadvance.com. If you like what you’re hearing, don’t keep it a secret. Go to www.growthignitersradio.com, pick episode four and use the share links for iTunes, Stitcher, LinkedIn, or Twitter at the bottom of the page to tell your social media communities all about us. Be sure to subscribe to the Growth Igniters Radio series on iTunes and Stitcher so you won’t miss a single episode.
Pamela Harper: Welcome back to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper. We’re talking with Dr. Leslie Austin, “The Lion Tamer” about how a powerful kind of coaching can help not only difficult star performers, but others who are difficult to lead. Leslie, how can people find you?
Leslie Austin: You can always reach me fastest and easiest through my website. It’s email@example.com.
Pamela Harper: That’s right. We’ve been talking, and the good news that I’m hearing from the last two segments is that there are really powerful ways to coach [difficult] people who really can add value to the company. You can help them to transform, and it’s very exciting to hear about your work. Tell us a little bit more. In fact, let’s take an even more immediately useful tack. What is something that somebody who’s listening to this radio program [could use]; what could they do immediately after listening that would help them with the situation in their own companies? …They’re the leader, okay?
Leslie Austin: Okay. Sure. Let’s say to the leader or manager of such a person − [here’s] one very simple thing you can practice, and it’s a little bit of a challenge at the beginning, but it has a huge pay off. Sit down with that person and when they’re doing something that you really don’t like the way they’re behaving, sit down with them and ask them, what’s really bothering them? What do they think is wrong that they’re trying to fix or make better? What are they trying to change? Just ask it neutrally. Get them to tell you what they’re really after. What’s bothering them? Then you can say to them, “that’s a great goal, but I think the way you’re going about it is not helping you enough. Is there a better way you can go around and change what you’re doing so you get that goal accomplished but in a better way so that you can succeed at it?” It’ll be better for you. It’ll be better for everyone else.”
Now, notice the way I said that − I’m drawing on the higher value, or the enlightened self-interest of the client. “You’ll do better. It’ll be easier for you. I see that you’re not getting done what you want to get done.” You have to speak very positively that you are helping serve their goals if they’re really the profile of this kind of high success [but difficult] person.
Pamela Harper: Sure.
Leslie Austin: It will be someone narcissistic. You have to align with them.
Pamela Harper: Yes. That makes sense. Of course, as a leader, I guess you have to do some deep breathing first − I mean if somebody is really getting to you.
Leslie Austin: Of course.
Pamela Harper: That’s a challenge.
Leslie Austin: Again − compassion and truth. What you can say is, “the way you’re behaving, I have a hard time with the way you’re coming across. Let’s see if we can talk together and collaborate so that you can get your goals met, but by doing it differently so that I can be supportive of you.”
Pamela Harper: Okay. Well, that’s one good thing. Is there anything else that you could suggest? This is a big issue. In fact, when I told some people that you were going to be with us, there were a couple of people were lining up, going, “I can’t wait to hear this.” It’s such a big issue.
Leslie Austin: Well, here’s a very, very basic rule of thumb for you to think about: when you want to give somebody feedback or talk to them, you can’t say, “You can’t do that,” or “that was wrong.” What you say is, “When you do this this way, the impact on me is this,” or “it impacts the team this way.” Listen to how neutral that language is. “When you do x, y happens with the team. How can we adjust it so y doesn’t happen with the team?” You’re not saying, “What kind of a dumb, bully are you that you’re doing that? Don’t you see the team is demoralized?” You’ll never get anywhere. They’ll just clobber you even worse.
Scott Harper: … “If you adjust so you’re not getting y, then you can get more of z, what you want.”
Leslie Austin: Right. Again, the key to the language is neutral, truthful and aligning with the person you’re talking to. You can’t blame them or make them wrong but you can say, “Look, this isn’t working. What do we need to do to get it to work better so that you succeed more?” In the enlightened the self-interest of your client.
Scott Harper: Okay. Leslie, you’ve put together a guide to negotiating corporate politics that our listeners can download by going to www.growthignitersradio.com and going to resources [for Episode 4]. Can you tell us a little bit about that, and how can that benefit either the difficult people or the folks around them.
Leslie Austin: Sure. That’s a very simple and fun basic list. It’s the Lion Tamer’s Ten Top Tips to Dealing With Office Politics. It’s a really popular handout of mine, because it has a list of very simple but really powerful behavioral guidelines for how to deal with people in the office. What kinds of stances you need to take, what kind of attitudes you need to have, and how you speak to other people in a way that’s productive instead of just backbiting or gossipy or critical.
Scott Harper: That’s great.
Leslie Austin: Yeah. It’s very practical.
Pamela Harper: Well, these are excellent things. If you were to think about summing it all up, what would you like to leave as a last thought for now?
Leslie Austin: Really what I’d like to leave with you is that, even in someone who seems to be the nastiest, most aggressive, terrible bully who you think nobody wants to be around, somewhere in there is a really good person who means well, who for whatever reasons in their life has been supported or trained to be a miserable person. You’ve got to dig down underneath to find the little boy or the little girl or the young person who means well and wants the best, and connect to that part of them, the good in them, to support them to change. Inevitably, really positive change happens if they’ll connect to you.
Scott Harper: And they feel so much better for doing it.
Leslie Austin: Totally. So does everyone around them, which is really the point.
Pamela Harper: That’s very well worthwhile. Leslie, thank you so much again. We hope you’ll come back.
Leslie Austin: It’s my great pleasure. I certainly will. Thank you.
Pamela Harper: I think there’s a lot more to this topic. Of course, you talked about a lot of other things; we’re not just talking about totally dysfunctional types of people.
Leslie Austin: Right, definitely.
Pamela Harper: …bringing out the best in others. So we look forward to having you come back.
Leslie Austin: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure.
Pamela Harper: Okay. Well, join us next Wednesday when our guest will be Barbara Weltman, who’s a leading authority on tax, law, and finance for small business and author of over 25 books including the best selling J.K. Lasker’s Small Business Taxes and the 1001 Deductions and Tax Breaks for Business Taxes. Very timely. We’re going to be talking with her about how business leaders can be better prepared to face crises, and whatever else the world throws at them.
Scott Harper: Thanks for listening to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper. To check out resources related to today’s conversation, including the Lion Tamer’s Guide to Corporate Politics, join our community, and subscribe on iTunes or Stitcher, go to www.growthignitersradio.com. Select episode four and click in the appropriate links under resources.
Pamela Harper: Until next time, this is Pam Harper…
Scott Harper: And Scott Harper…
Pamela Harper: Wishing you continued success, and leaving you with this thought.
Scott Harper: Be mindful of what you do − because wherever you go, you do impact others.
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