Aberrant Geniuses (aka jerks)

In the book Trillion Dollar Coach about Bill Campbell, there is an important section on Aberrant Geniuses. I like this term because he is using it in place of divas (or assholes). I have a low tolerance for this kind, but this shows them in a new light which I can appreciate.

The book describes them as sometimes being enormously valuable when they are directed in the right way. However their egos and “me first” attitudes can be detrimental to a team. This is where the art of managing + coaching them comes in.

The portion that stands out is the description itself:

Aberrant geniuses are high performing but difficult team members – [that] should be tolerated and even protected, as long as their behavior isn’t unethical or abusive and their value outweighs the toll their behavior takes on management, colleagues, and teams.

Trillion Dollar Coach

It goes on to define what you should never tolerate, such as lying and harassment. This also sounds painfully obvious, but from firsthand coaching experience with founders there are many that are willing to put up with awful behavior for the sake of the aberrant genius output.

I think about this in the context of damage vs contribution and have asked founders to do a matrix of what the two looks like. Its very clear that toxic behavior can be detrimental. I am also fond of saying “attitudes are contagious” and its easy to see so called “top performing” members set the tone and behavior for an org. Brilliance is great to have inside your team, but the ability to be able to spend time with a person is even more important.

The thinking at some point evolves to potentially firing the person and not having them in the org. When working with management teams it is abundantly clear that nobody ever looks back on a decision and thinks “wow, I am glad we waited to get rid of this person” however it is hard to take this action in real time. Usually the change happens after a final act, tipping point of behavior, or a performance improvement plan that hasn’t gone well. From the time you start thinking about and acting on the issue to the person no longer being in the org. I have found to be around 3 months. In an early startup lifecycle this is a significant percentage of time they have been alive. This framing can sometimes help move things along faster but it is very hard – especially for those who don’t want to be seen as making the wrong decision on a team member.

The best way the book, and my experience, suggest dealing with these aberrant geniuses is through coaching. It is hard to do but a good way to try and help. The ability for the coachee to be an intrinsic thinker is critical. It is also extremely helpful to have an outside third party be doing the coaching.

The first step is to determine if the person can put the needs of the company first. Many are driven by ego and self promotion, which can be beneficial when done correctly, but ultimately this narcissism but not be containable. While studies show narcissists have a high likelihood of becoming leaders, the question to ask alongside this is “would people want to join a team, company, or group that has this person as a part of it?”.

Looking for win-wins can also be helpful. Does the promotional nature of what the company is doing fit their story arc and provide the self righteous check mark they need, while aligning with the goals of the company? If you can find things that are good for the jerk genius, good for the company, and good for customers – you may have a way to win. If not, it may not all be worth it.

In summary, always optimize for the company + the team first. If you find that toxicity is creeping in, despite big wins, it may be time to take action.

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