Case Study | The Experts Respond

ILLUSTRATION: STEVE WACKSMAN

Ishan Raina is the CEO of OOH Media, a leading outdoor advertising company in India, and the chairman of Ignitee Digital Services, an Indian internet marketing solutions provider.

STEFAN AND Vijay’s dinner can play out in one of three ways. The best-case scenario is that Stefan talks honestly yet carefully with Vijay, and Vijay gets the message and decides to stay. That might sound far-fetched, but it’s not impossible.

Another possibility is that Vijay balks at any hint of criticism and quits, leaving Stefan to quickly map out a plan for retaining clients and keeping revenue up. That would be tough, but people often assume that a star like Vijay is more important than he really is. And it’s not the worst-case scenario.

The worst is that Stefan does nothing and lets the problem fester. In three or six months the office will be in deeper turmoil; Vijay will be losing customers, not just staff members; and Stefan will have to pick up the pieces. If Stefan doesn’t talk to Vijay now, he is simply postponing the inevitable.

Ideally, Stefan could talk with Leman, Highlander, and the other senior partners, laying out the above scenarios and building the firm’s confidence in his ability to handle the situation and to grow a strong organization with or without Vijay. But he doesn’t have time for that before his dinner, and to ignore what he’s just learned from the Mumbai team would be an opportunity lost. Stefan must do his job and manage Vijay.

Of course, Stefan has to be careful. If Vijay thinks the firm is going to constrain his growth by putting him on a leash, he will leave. Instead of telling him what he’s doing wrong, Stefan should appeal to his star’s ego. He should start the conversation by asking Vijay what his long-term goals are and what he pictures himself doing in five years. Once Vijay says that he wants to achieve X, Y, and Z, Stefan can explain how he’ll need to change in order to reach those goals. It’s critical that anything Stefan suggests is focused on what Vijay wants — not on what the partners or the complaining consultants expect.

I’ve been in this situation myself. It happens all the time in the advertising industry. What do you do with a highflier who is great for revenue but bad for your organization? Twice when I’ve given honest feedback to a star like Vijay, the person has left to start another firm. Fortunately, however, in each case I was able to retain my company’s clients, because I went to them and explained that although the departing executive had been the face of his team, there were very competent people behind him who could continue to do the work.

In a third case, after I had the candid conversation, the star decided to stay. I was able to fix the problem and also keep the guy. But he didn’t do it for me or for anyone else at the company. He did it for himself.

The conversation that Stefan is about to have is like any negotiation: If he’s not willing to lose, he’s not going to win. But it’s a risk worth taking. If someone is likely to ruin your organization, you need to address the situation immediately.

Eric Olson is the global managing partner of leadership consulting at Heidrick & Struggles.

STEFAN HASN’T had a conversation with Thomas Leman about Vijay’s future, so there are real limits to what he can say at dinner. Unless he gets backup, he can’t confront Vijay about his leadership style as if it were a deal breaker.

I’ve been in this very situation in India and elsewhere. In my experience, star consultants don’t suddenly become team builders. It’s clear that Vijay would rather leave than change his behavior, and Stefan should expect that outcome if he approaches him head-on at dinner.

The firm’s partners have a decision to make: Can they build on the existing hero-centered business model, or do they need something different going forward? I use a framework developed by the company Service Performance Insight that describes five stages of growth for any professional services firm: heroic, functional excellence, project excellence, portfolio excellence, and collaborative. The Mumbai office is clearly in the first stage, which is highly effective for a new, small firm. But the high attrition rate makes it potentially unsustainable.

To ask Vijay to switch models, and run the risk of losing him, is not a decision Stefan can make on his own. In fact, Thomas Leman’s directive two years earlier was the opposite — to keep the star happy. If Stefan believes that change is needed, he has to start building that case back in New York. A different model might be feasible, but only if the firm can stage a comprehensive intervention that persuades Vijay to adapt or if the partners can create a team capable of replacing the revenue that would be lost should Vijay walk. Stefan can’t do either of those things without buyin from the other partners.

So what should Stefan say to Vijay at dinner? He needs to focus the conversation on Vijay’s goals for the office and how to achieve them. In India there is a strong cultural bias toward competing and winning; Stefan can appeal to this in Vijay. He can applaud the growth they’ve seen so far and then describe the profile of firms that win over time. He might explain that those that reach the highest stage of maturity have lower attrition rates and higher EBIDTA, and that he’s seen other stars hit a wall because they couldn’t carry the business beyond a certain revenue point. He can tell Vijay that this is not what the firm wants for him.

Instead of calling Vijay out for bad behavior, Stefan can present a challenge. He shouldn’t ask Vijay to change, because he won’t. But he may be able to get Vijay excited about the opportunity to expand his considerable skills to match the next stage of the office’s growth. If Stefan can’t do that, he has a difficult message to take back to headquarters.

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