Do You Have What It Takes to Manage Your Toughest, and Often Best, Employees

It takes special skills to get such folks to perform at their best. After all, the most accomplished and talented people don’t think they need guidance. Here are several stories of dealing with unique personalities in the workplace.

October 4, 2007
If you think leading employees in your small business is hard, try being responsible for opera divas, television news reporters, egocentric physicians, mercurial musicians or high-strung brides. You know, the types whose pictures could appear next to "high-maintenance" in the dictionary.

It takes special skills to get such folks to perform at their best. After all, the most accomplished and talented people don’t think they need guidance.

"A lot of them, one way or another, have always been able to get what they want," says James Redeker, chair of the employment services department at Wolf Block Schorr & Solis-Cohen, a Philadelphia-based law firm. "They have never tasted failure."

The challenge in leading such personalities—if your small business is lucky, you’ve got them—is that they are often extremely sensitive. Use the wrong approach and they may work against you.

Knowing that, Workforce Management sister publication Crain’s Chicago Business went looking for people across Chicago who are adept at managing these types, figuring their techniques to get the best out of difficult-to-manage employees and clients would apply to the wider world of entrepreneurship.

As it turns out, the five selected have a lot in common, and those shared characteristics seem to be the very ones that explain their effectiveness as leaders.

For starters, all are willing and able to demonstrate genuine respect for their employees and clients—no matter the industry or area of interest.

All are refreshingly unassuming about their abilities and effusive about the skills of the people they work with and for. If anything goes wrong in one of Chicago conductor Cliff Colnot’s rehearsals or recording sessions, for example, he blames himself and not the musicians. Marina Vecci, aide-de-camp of Lyric Opera of Chicago stars, considers the word "diva" a compliment. And you couldn’t pay Angela Rosemond, WMAQ-TV/Channel 5’s managing editor, to say a bad thing about her charges, even those whose prickly reputations are no secret.

All of them also are able to establish credibility with those they lead. They do it by demonstrating excellence in their field, and by being transparent about their goals. The "what you see is what you get" approach engenders trust. And it takes many forms.

Marina Birch, who plans high-end weddings, doesn’t accept commissions from vendors, unlike most in the industry, so her clients trust she has only their interest at heart. Joe Garcia, chief of medicine at the University of Chicago, shares what he values and what he’s after with anyone who asks. "He has great authenticity, and from that launches trust," says his boss, University of Chicago Hospitals CEO James Madara.

These leadership skills are, no doubt, difficult to acquire. But they are crucial to running a business and retaining staff, says Beverly Kaye, co-author of Love ’Em or Lose ’Em: Getting Good People to Stay.

Talented people aren’t as motivated by money as they are by the opportunity to improve themselves and their work. They are always asking themselves, "Am I getting what I need?" Kaye says.

If the answer is no, they won’t hesitate to leave, which could leave your small business in big trouble.

So here they are—leaders to learn from. Let the class begin.