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What Do You Do With the Brilliant Jerk?

Photo: Fuse | Getty Images

My most recent experience with a Brilliant Jerk occurred when I was helping a group of 25 doctors thrash out their shared values as they tried to become a real company.

Toward the front of the room, I spotted the Brilliant Jerk. He was the one doctor who dampened the unity with subtle but consistent complaining about why the group couldn't do some things and shouldn't do others. When he spoke, everyone became quiet and listened - not out of excitement for what he was going to say but out of respect. Yes, the doctors had respect for the Brilliant Jerk.

(Read more: 10 Minutes Is All Employers Need to Evaluate Job Candidates)

Here's why: He was always the first to cover for doctors who were on call. He was always the first to volunteer to work on holidays. He had the most articles published by the American Medical Association. He was the first to get new training and share it with others one-on-one. And by the way, he was the highest revenue producer of all the doctors in the group. In fact, he was producing twice the revenue of some of the doctors. He had been the third doctor to join the group and without his revenue, the start-up could not have been successful.

But here's the problem: While he had performed brilliantly for the start-up, he was not performing brilliantly for a company that was trying to grow. The brilliant start-up talent had become the Brilliant Jerk. I define Brilliant Jerks as specialized, high-producing performers. They are not, however, brilliant business people, and that is what companies need during periods of rapid growth. There are a lot of hurdles to cross when companies move from start-up to growth, including dealing with chaos and changes in culture. But the biggest hurdle is dealing with the human factor - how you move, shift and replace people as the company grows into the next level of success.

Most high-growth companies start with two or three founders who have a common idea and are passionately committed to the mission. The cause creates shared values among the founders and early employees, and work is fun. Most days, everyone feels like part of the team and does great work; some days it feels like "Survivor" — as when you are working nights and weekends to ensure that the start-up is still in business come Monday morning. At this stage, everyone is important. Decisions are usually made when everyone is in the room or at least within earshot.

But then, with this kind of commitment, hard work and passion, the company starts to grow and maybe even double in size and revenue. All of a sudden, instead of being part of a scout troop, you are riding a rocket. Work is fun and exciting but with constant turbulence, and all of the participants have to give it their all to keep the rocket in orbit and in alignment on the new mission of growth. Inevitably, at least one of the founders or early superstars will not like the new mission. This person will still want to be the Brilliant Talent of the start-up — instead of being a contributor on the rocket, where everyone has to step up to new roles and where new superstars are being made.

I had a brilliant start-up talent when I was building my company, STI Knowledge, into a global brand. When we hired him, we hired over our heads. He had juice. We marveled at his manic performance, which often propelled all of us. When we had a crisis, he could solve it. Yes, he could have taken bigger jobs at bigger salaries but he chose to work with rebels. He knew we were right in our vision and mission, and he knew we could not do it without him. But in trying to maintain his glory, he struggled to let us go and grow.

The growth phase required the addition of staff members, systems and structure that changed the dynamics of the company. While the brilliant talent was a high-tech genius, the new stars were being made in areas like sales, marketing and education. He felt left out. He was no longer needed in every meeting. He could not simply pop into the chief executive's office four or five times a day like old times, and the new processes and systems hindered and even prevented him from being the savior. Right before our eyes, the brilliant talent became the Brilliant Jerk.

I have listened to Brilliant Jerks proclaim, "I am the one who is always on call, who drives the most revenue, who is here on weekends and who has the knowledge." And the Brilliant Jerk speaks the truth. But I have also seen him stick his head in the door and deflate an entire management team. A growth company needs enablers, not disablers.

Managing a Brilliant Jerk

So what do you do with the Brilliant Jerk? Generally, the thought of firing the Brilliant Jerk is not even considered. Entrepreneurs are builders and growers, and termination of the Brilliant Jerk is not one of their basic instincts. Sheer loyalty compels most entrepreneurs to try to find a way to make it work. But that's almost always a mistake. That's what happened with the Brilliant Jerk doctor and the medical group. He hung around, unhappy, until he abruptly quit one morning — and then spent the next couple of years attacking the company from every conceivable angle: poaching employees, helping competitors and starting legal battles.

So what's the right answer? Get rid of the Brilliant Jerk as fast as you possibly can.

The biggest waste of time in a high-growth company is the period that falls between when you know someone does not fit the growth culture and the time you terminate the relationship. On average, I'd say the Brilliant Jerk hangs around for 1.5 years; decisive action can limit the period to less than six months. The likes of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Roger Ailes have had no problem showing Brilliant Jerks the door, and all built world-class brands faster and better than the rest of us. I wish I could tell you I was as tough as those guys. I learned the hard way by not taking action when I should have.

I can tell you from personal experience that coddling the Brilliant Jerk - letting him work from home, consoling him, giving him special assignments - does not work. It just kicks the can down the road. At my company, I was worried about the impact his firing would have on other employees who had shown him respect. To my surprise, the reaction was, "What took you so long?"

One of the worst feelings I have ever experienced was looking at the Brilliant Jerk and saying, "We have a vision, and I have decided you are no longer a match for where we need to go." One of the best feelings came the next day when everyone was moving forward together.

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

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