When To Fire A Star Product Manager

Cindy Alvarez recently posted 8 job interview questions product managers should be able to answer. I have some ideas about those–but, first, let’s take a trip on the dark side.

Say this prospect aces the interview, you hire them, and they do terrific work–they’re a star performer. But it turns out, they’re more arrogant than you thought, disruptive. What do you do?

Idle gauntlets are the devil’s playground.

The Knowledge@Wharton article ‘One for All’ or ‘One for One’? The Trade-off between Talent and Disruptive Behavior studies this idea in the generic sense, using sports teams as a metaphor for business teams: “Is it better to have an individual player who’s a superstar […] or is it better to have somebody who is giving up opportunities themselves in order to pursue team harmony and team success?”

I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve had to fire a star performer before–and, full disclosure, I am not in this situation today, so everyone that works for me can stand down–but it’s an interesting problem to ponder.

What could be causing the disruptive behavior?

If the PM is bored and feeling under appreciated, maybe you can give them new purpose. Ask them to start a campaign of win/loss analysis calls. Or write an e-book to promote the product or service. Or swap products with someone else to keep things fresh.

If the PM is basically a jackass it’s probably time to ask the hard question: Are they really worth it?

If someone’s behavior is not acceptable, and you allow it, what does that say about you and your organization? And what affect does that behavior have on the team, the corporate culture? There’s more at stake than just managing the product. There’s morale, teamwork, and standards to consider.

What impact will the star’s behavior have on the junior members of the team who don’t have the star’s skills–but can easily replicate the star’s bad behavior?

I don’t know if there’s a One-Size-Fits-All solution… but if the answer to the question, “Are they really worth it?” is “No,” then it’s time to work with HR to correct the behavior.

And if that doesn’t work, then it’s time for that star to go before they supernova–and take you with them.

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10 thoughts on “When To Fire A Star Product Manager

  1. Good points, but I was hoping for a little more meat.

    From your description, it seems like I could be this person who needs to be fired, but I think there are a few other things you failed to capture in your analysis.

    Like a sports team, if you have built a team around one player, and the rest of the talent is not able to perform, losing the “star” would be a tragedy that might bring the rest of the organization to its knees. Yep it could be rebuilt, but do you really have the time and the support of the executive team to do this (usually VERY expensive)? Part of the problem is that as management and executives, many times they create the environment that fits the “superstar”, and allow (or force) the rest of the organization to atrophy, so that you essentially have a one pillar group, supported by your superstar.

    The negative of this is that you have one person who pretty much carries ALL the load, and can’t spread the workload, as the rest of the team is never of a caliber or quality to step up.

    In my case, I do not think I am a superstar (or at least I don’t have the ego that you hint at above), but I am tired of the product management rat race. The fact that we have systematically destroyed any semblance of organization to support a transition (i.e. me into a role where I am not resentful and hate waking up every day), I am trapped and pigeonholed into a job that increasingly becomes more impossible to succeed at.

    The sad thing is that with a little forethought (and not juggling incompetent GM’s through the corner office), we as an organization would not be in this situation.

    I do not want to quit, but I feel that for there EVER to be any sunlight in my life and career, I have to look outside of the building.

  2. I think usually it’s sales people and engineering that fit this bill. They bring in the big money or weave magic with the keyboard, so it’s easier to overlook their other flaws. Could any pm actually engage in such behavior and be effective in his or her role?

  3. DB Makes a great point here. I have never known a PM who was arrogant, or able to act like this.

    In my world, when things go well, Sales, Engineering, and even senior executives line up to grab the limelight. However, when the shit hits the fan, the PM gets the full onslaught in the face.

  4. @gander2112 – Thanks for your feedback. Like I said, I’ve never been in the position of needing to fire a star PM (and, to the best of my knowledge, I’ve never been in the cross-hairs either) but it’s an interesting issue to wrestle with. Interesting for me, but maybe closer to home for you…?

    From what you’re describing, it seems like the organization has rallied around you–which is a testament to your abilities!–without understanding the cost of consolidating too much responsibility and workload on any one individual. In my experience, many times the work that PMs are asked to take on isn’t even really PM work. It’s not strategy, product definition, or the like–it’s on-the-spot problem-solving, usually for engineering. That can be fun and challenging, but can also eat into time better spent on other activities and planning.

    Without knowing the full details of your particular situation, I think you’ve identified what you need to do. If you haven’t already done so, my suggestion would be to talk with your supervisor about your short-term situation (can any of this work be offloaded) and the company’s long-term position (can product management evolve into more of a business-oriented group than a tactical, day-to-day, fire-fighting machine).

    If your supervisor doesn’t see a problem, or can’t offer an agreeable solution, then you can either accept your situation for what it is–or start looking for a new opportunity. I know, that’s an easy thing to say, and not necessarily an easy thing to do, but it’s also true.

    Virtually every workplace has weirdness and controversy, things to enjoy and things to loathe, people to respect and people to avoid. If you’re at the point where you can’t stand getting out of bed in the morning, then something needs to change. As long as we have a choice, we’re never truly trapped. And there are plenty of companies out there would could use–and appreciate–the help of a talented PM.

    – Chris

  5. @DB – I worked at one startup in the mid-1990s, and the PM there was very much a poisonous star–capable of wringing features out of engineering, a darling of the executive team, but arrogant toward anyone he viewed as beneath him. I was not in product management at that time so I didn’t interact directly with him, but it definitely seemed like he could get away with murder because of where he came from (a known, tech brand) and his ability to deliver.

  6. Just reading (Winning / Jack Welch) about slotting people into 4 groups: T1) good values/good performance, T2) bad values/bad performance, T3) good values/bad performance, and T4) bad values/good performance. You want to stock up on the good/good people, bad/bad have to go (now!), good/bad have to be coached and mentored and the bad/good people (who you refer to) typically need to go too, but it takes awhile to get past the good performance.


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