How to Be Brilliant Without Alienating Anyone

Brilliance can get you only so far. Just ask Apple’s ousted senior VP of iOS Scott Forstall, or Microsoft’s former President of Windows and Windows Live Steven Sinofsky. Both reportedly clashed with other executives and employees, which factored into their departures.

For rock star engineers on a management track, or talented IT managers, there are lessons to be learned here, especially for people who are aggressive to the point of being difficult. George Hallenbeck, Vice President of Intellectual Property Development at the Korn/Ferry Institute, outlined for me his seven savings graces for such folks to adopt before it’s too late.

Flying High, Landing Hard

To accomplish meaningful change, you need to take three steps before moving onto the 7 Saving Graces.

  • Recognize that people perceive you to have a difficult personality
  • Accept that you do have a difficult personality
  • Be motivated to do something about it

“If you don’t have these three elements, you won’t be successful in turning things around,” Hallenbeck says. “Some people say, ‘I’ve gotten this far and we’ll see how it goes.’ But if they were to look down the road and see how it will end for them [like an ouster], just adding some additional skills to their repertoire could help them do things in an effective manner.”

To those who think that’s an impossible task, Hallenbeck says: “Everyone is capable of change.”

7 Saving Graces

Here are the graces:

  • Listening
  • Approachability
  • Boss Relationships
  • Integrity and Trust
  • Humor
  • Interpersonal Savvy
  • Understanding Others

Adopting these characteristics, Hallenbeck says, “will buy you some forgiveness with people and put a soft focus around your hard edges.”

For example, rock stars, managers or not, who can listen effectively to their peers, reports and bosses may yield more productive results and brownie points than those who lead with their ideas.

“Rather than say, ‘here is the problem, here’s my idea, what do you think?,’ maybe you should start by getting a consensus around what the problem is and then listen to other people’s ideas of how to solve it,” Hallenbeck suggests. “You don’t have to agree with their ideas, but it shows you solicited their ideas and acknowledged them. This way, people won’t feel like you jammed your idea down their throats.”

Another thing that can alienate others is a lack of approachability. There’s a substantial difference between inviting information versus being the one who always asks questions and digs hard for answers. You don’t want to cross the line into interrogation.

“If a product launch slips, rather than say ‘why did you screw up?’, you may want to start the conversation by saying, ‘is my understanding correct on how this was handled? How did you approach it?,” advises Hallenbeck. “This allows people to recognize where they made the mistake, rather than feel interrogated.”

It will also create a culture where the emphasis is on accountability and problem solving, rather than avoidance or finger pointing to avoid the wrath of a difficult team leader or director.

Tips on Managing Rock Stars

Companies that operate with difficult rock stars or brilliant leaders are often in a quandary. They’re addicted to the solutions and ideas that these people put on the table, but they know addiction is a bad thing.

“When you have someone who knows what they’re doing and how to get things done, you have to ask yourself at what cost? What’s the collateral damage?,” Hallenbeck points out. “It doesn’t mean you can’t be results-orientated, but you have to balance that with how you’re managing people.”

“You want to keep their strengths intact, but provide skills that can act as a buffer and smooth over some of the rough edges of their style,” Hallenbeck says. “They may find they can get more accomplished by changing some of their behavior.

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