The “star” syndrome

December 12, 2008 at 1:27 pm | Posted in Business | 2 Comments
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Twice in my coaching career I had to deal with the “star syndrome”. The player that is so good that you find yourself looking the other way when it comes to his negatives, even if sometimes it means a bit of a double standard. That is a hard one for me, as it is for most coaches. There comes a point when you’ve got to make a call on these kids for the good of the team. The decision is agonizing.

I saw this recently not with sports, but with MySQL creator, Monty Widenius, when he publicly went on a rant about a recent decision to release a product. This was not his first action of this sort. Fact is, we find these people in all walks of life, both personally and professionally. They are extremely talented, passionate, brilliant, and often mean well, but their negatives can greatly bring down the infrastructure of a team or organization, especially depending on the maturity of the organization.

Jack Welch in his book Straight from the Gut talks about a quadrant approach he used to help clarify his thinking on this issue. (disclaimer: I listened to the audio book, but from what I heard, it looks pretty close to this:)

welch-diagram

In his years of experience, he talked about how even though the decision can be extremely painful in the short-term because of their results, he has rarely seen it end well when someone just doesn’t fit the corporate culture. The erosion happens in slow, subtle ways that are very difficult to recover from in the end.

I believe the tolerance for the “star syndrome” is directly related to the size and maturity of the organization. Complete speculation here, but I’m guessing Monty’s passion and style were a fantastic, if not utterly necessary, fit in the early days of MySQL. But over time, their mission changed and I’m talking even well before the Sun acquisition. They needed to make money, pure and simple, and that objective was somewhat at odds with their early mission statement and goals. Things changed as they grew but it appears Monty didn’t want to change.

Should Monty go? I don’t know. That’s up to him and his team. But I do know this: organizations are in constant change. Sometimes it’s evolution, sometimes it’s regression, but if you’re trying to build a true team, then cultural cohesion is paramount every step of the way. The problem is often that those who benefit from the star’s brilliance don’t ever see the wake of problems that others must deal with. Monty’s developers may love him passionately because of his talent, but can you imagine the trail of carnage left by this particular action and how it affects so many facets of the company? And this was just one we saw. I know of many others they’ve dealt with internally. That makes for a culture that absolutely undermines the building of a strong, long-term team.

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  1. Great blog post Billy. Sir Alex Ferguson, who has been ‘coach’ of Manchester United for over 25 years has a track record of firing any ‘star’ who starts to think they are bigger than the team. Every time he fires them, whether it’s David Beckham, Ruud VanNistelroy, Roy Keane, or countless others, the pundits always come out with the same refrain ‘what a mistake; they’ll never win anything ever again’, but guess what, he brings in new players, grooms them, and they win again.

  2. Well put Billy-the hard part is sometimes figuring out how long to stick with those who are a good fit for the team, but aren’t for the role; they’re well-liked by the team, carry their weight, and may have the tools to advance-just not necessarily via the path they’re on.


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