Managing a Prima Donna in your recruiting team

For all my blog posts please see 'The Savage Truth'

If you have ever managed a team of recruiters for any length of time, this topic will resonate with you, I am sure.

Inevitably, within a group of recruiters, one, maybe two, will rise to the top. These “Big Billers” either inherit a great desk or, less often, they build it themselves, and soon they are consistently out-billing everyone else. Sadly, in many cases it seems with good consultants “the higher the fees the bigger the pain in the butt”. It’s not always the case, and I have known many great recruiters who are humble and willing to share, but with many high billers it seems it is no longer possible for them to operate without making it perfectly clear to their colleagues that they are not quite on the same consulting planet. Smugness sets in. Lack of cooperation on new initiatives becomes the norm. The “Big Biller” comes late to meetings because, you know, “I bill a lot, you know”. Administration is suddenly beneath them. Ironically, as the Prima Donna gets more complacent and more arrogant, complaints from clients and candidates about the ” Big Biller” start to rise.

And boy, if Prima Donna gets a headhunting call from a competitor, the whole world knows about it in three seconds flat.

Now this is a management challenge. And over many years I have noticed that managers of Prima Donnas fail miserably to address the problem because they allow themselves to be held to ransom by the “Big Biller”. There is an action-stunting fear that the fees will be lost if the Prima Donna is offended in some way, and heaven forbid, resigns! It seems many managers put up with a thousand varieties of bulldust from Big Billers because, “we can’t afford to lose them”.

This is a massive mistake and one a good manager must avoid at all costs.

If you allow top performers, who evolve into Prima Donnas, to blackmail you because “they bring in all the money”, you are setting yourself up for a life of pure hell! The first rule, and the non-negotiable rule with these guys is this. Do not allow different rules to develop for Prima Donnas because they are “special”. It is a slippery slope you are creating if the perception exists that as long as my fees are good, I don’t have to attend meetings on time, or do my admin like everyone else. Do not compromise the type of team you are trying to build, the culture you are creating, for the short-term benefit of one high-production consultant.

If you do this, the problem will multiply as the Prima Donna takes even greater liberties. You will lose respect from the rest of the team, and ultimately you will lose your team.

The best strategy for Prima Donnas is to confront their behaviour head-on. And the way to do this is to keep raising the bar. The psyche of a Prima Donna is based on a belief that “they are the best”. Turn that label back on to them. Your communication is along these lines. If they are as good as they think and say they are, then they will want to achieve higher activity levels and quality standards than the rest of the team.

So with a Prima Donna, you must specifically tell them what they are consistently doing well. Compliment them and encourage repetition of that behaviour. But also very importantly let them know what they need to do to be a truly excellent performer. What they must do more of and less of. So for example you might compliment your Big Biller on a quarter of great fee production. But then go on to point out that 40% of the jobs he took in, were lost to competitors. (Not an uncommon figure for contingent perm recruitment.) Focus on this. If possible compare it to other recruiters with better ratios. Set the Big Biller a goal to reduce jobs lost and increase their fill rates. These guys are so used to praise and fawning from leadership, it actually stunts their development.

I never met a recruiter in 30 years who could not improve. With your Big Biller, focus on that. Areas for improvement. Bring them down to earth. Set goals which while fair and business critical, you know they will struggle to meet.

It gives the old Prima Donna a wonderful sense of perspective.

On behavioural and attitudinal matters, I recommend a zero-tolerance policy. After a few normal warnings and coaching on areas the big biller must improve, it has to come down to this, “BB, your fees are excellent and we value your contribution greatly, but one of the non-negotiable aspects of working in this team, is we all attend daily meetings on time. We have spoken about your lateness several times and now I have to tell you that if you wish to stay on the team, you need to be there on time, every time”.

And be prepared to follow up on that threat.

You see, Big Billers are important, but more important than their fees, is equity in the team, co-operation, and an environment of mutual respect. Don’t trade off the long term harmony of your business, for the short term hit of the fees provided by a toxic Big Biller.

Views: 180

Comment by Paul Alfred on March 22, 2010 at 10:10am
Great post Greg ... I would also add that you build a team around the big biller get him/her into mentoring others set a sales quota responsibility for him and his team to meet ... That means that his/her team has to succeed as well - puts more pressure to help others and gets him/her into learning how to become a Manager/Leader - the incentive is he/she makes more money if the team wins.

I also love my Client Engagement guys to work in pairs for each client that way if Big Biller wants to leave the client has met with the backup and has a relationship. A little Risk Management.
Comment by Martin H.Snyder on March 22, 2010 at 3:00pm
Greg I love it in theory, but I love my kids more, and their future college education means a lot to me. In my 15 years of business ownership I have had the pleasure(!) of dealing with a number of world-class prima dona types, and I would not want to lose any of them.

When their antics cause problems with other team-members, I counsel exactly the reverse of your program: I describe their achievements and contributions in great detail and suggest that similar major contributions will result in similar freedom to ignore the 'rules', whatever they may be. Sure it sounds unfair and counterproductive, and it does make some people unhappy, but in the end, if you live by the star system you need to abide its built in lack of equality.

What seems to happen is that very soon the effects wear off for both sides- the prima dona loses the thrill, and the others lose the will to really care, and small group peer pressure is extraordinarly hard to resist for very long. I just take the zen approach to wait out the inevitable.

The real problem is when multiple prima donas start to jostle each other. The only cure then is massive distraction: until someone gets a new house, baby, or relationship, there will be some babysitting and drama to deal with. A small price to pay- in fact, that's what I am paid to deal with- because your top producers tend to out-produce everyone else by a wide margin, and thats one thing I never lose sight of.
Comment by Greg Savage on March 22, 2010 at 5:46pm
Thanks for comments Martin. Just proves there are many ways to tackle an issue and different degrees of "discomfort" that each of us are willing to tolerate. Managing people is not an exact science I am sure we would all agree. For me howver, your system of promoting "buccaneers and renegades" based on hig-billings would send me crazy!. My kids will get to colleege too, but without Priman Donnas in my business. :)
Comment by Ross Clennett on March 22, 2010 at 7:29pm
Martin, my concern would be that if the PD's are ignoring the rules you, as the owner/leader, set then isn't that undermining your leadership authority and potentially causing many more problems?
Comment by Leigh Cosgrove on March 23, 2010 at 10:25am
I have worked with these BBs in agencies too and I would agree that it is unfair to label them as a group as I have worked with some very good BBs that share and encourage. Greg, I want to believe that your method would work and I thoroughly dislike Martin's view of how to handle these types of people but in my experience his is the model that most follow. Ross, you are exactly right in your comments, these agencies develop a culture where your regular billers feel less valued, less motivated and don't trust or respect the leadership. Yes the company's bottom line looks better in Martin's model but the working environment and culture is the least desirable no matter what your motivation is.


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