Do not allow a ‘Prima Donna’ to destroy your leadership credibility!

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 50% 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.

About Greg Savage

Over a career spanning thirty years, Greg Savage has established himself as a global recruitment leader. Greg is a regular keynote speaker at staffing and recruitment conferences around the world.

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6 Responses to Do not allow a ‘Prima Donna’ to destroy your leadership credibility!

  1. Dan Nuroo March 15, 2010 at 9:00 am #

    Ah, Greg, I love it. Look at the Carlton Football club for an example of this (with Brendan Fevola, their once prize Goal kicker). There was too much of drawing the line and not following through. “Brendan, that’s bad, do it again and there will be trouble”. “OK this is the last time, don’t do it again”. “seriously Brendan, please don’t do this again, or we’ll have to take action.” “one more time and that’s it!”

    This went on for years, and with such a young team they eventually had to make a stand, which was as popular as it was unpopular. But they had to take action. Firing one of their stars is a drastic step, and will cause some short term pain, but the win’s for the club as a whole to enforce the culture and strength of management (every place needs to have Management viewed as strong and in control) as unmistakable.

    PS I’m going through a similar process at the moment 🙂 This was a good shot in the arm

  2. Michelle Novotny March 15, 2010 at 12:09 pm #

    If only I read this 4 years ago. Greg you are so right again! This is so true for me, as I was reading this I thought it was based precisely on my company’s experience with a top biller. I had many people tell me that she was bad for the business overall but I didn’t listen, I fell into a comfortable position of allowing her to do what she wanted. This of course ended badly, as you state. She was also on workers compensation for the last 12 months of her employment, for a wrist injury which was caused by “stapling to many resumes”. Can you believe it!!! You can just imagine the special treatment she received then. I am now in a position of rebuilding my team, which is hard work, but I have certainly learnt from this experience and there will be absolutely no special treatment given in future. We are company and we work as one!

  3. Karen Gordon-Lewis March 15, 2010 at 2:26 pm #

    Oh this resonates! I have had the (dis)pleasure of working with several Prima Donna’s in my experience as a recruiter, and I have to say that their behaviour ultimately leads to their own downfall. However, the biggest lesson I learned as a business owner was in actively managing one MAJOR PD out of our business because despite their high billing figures, they were highly destructive for the team, clients and candidates alike. And guess what? Billing did not actually suffer … in fact, they increased as the team worked hard to repair the damage. You are so right Greg, do not allow yourself to be held to ransom.

  4. Paul Anderson March 16, 2010 at 7:32 pm #

    Interesting piece, with very salient points. Seen a number of Prima Donnas rule recruitment companies and the majority are not missed when they leave/are moved on. The other facet to remember which backs this point up, I come from 10 years Rec2rec and very rarely can these people repeat the highs and the big figures. Some exceptional candidates do, but not many. At times I think the big biller is created by a number of elements, that rarely fall into place the second or third time around, and a number of them are simply not willing to put the real graft in that got them there in the first place.

  5. Craig Charnock November 27, 2011 at 10:02 pm #

    Excellent advice, Mr. Savage.
    Applicable even here in the South African context. Thanks!

  6. ASHA September 7, 2012 at 1:25 am #

    Yes good advice, its is still a sad fact though that if they are a top biller and they get sacked, they will enivitebly work elsewhere and take there clients with them! Therefore ultimatley the company loses out. Being a recruitment consultant is about building and managing client and candidate realtionships, if you are exceptionally good at this then your clients and candidates will move with you. I know this for a fact because I was a top biller and got headhunted and took my clients with me, and therefore still a top biller, infact even better than my last company.

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