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Hi John,

We just acquired another company and I inherited two
extremely good, but very high maintenance sales
engineers. I was warned they are ‘prima donnas’ and they
are first class in front of the customer, but have a negative
attitude about everything internal, and neglect basic tasks
such as call reports, CRM updates etc.

I am concerned they are having an impact on the rest of my
team. What should I do?

Hello Pietr,

Thanks for the question. My first response is that this is a
common situation within an SE organization, and not to take
it personally. Just to lay out the situation in more detail
based upon a follow-up email you sent me, you have two
employees who are very good at the customer facing
aspects of their job and they know it. These two individuals
have a sense of entitlement as they feel they are
indispensible to the new organization and do not respect
the chain of command, nor do you have any real leverage
to force them to handle the basic tasks of the SE job. The
other SE’s in your organization have noticed that these two
are very negative, cynical and are being allowed to shirk
their responsibilities, which is being tolerated by
management (including you).

However, as a manager you have a great opportunity to
reset expectations because of the acquisition and start
afresh. Step 1 is to separately sit down with these two folks
and clearly explain the roles and responsibilities of the SE
job and provide them with a documented job description.  
You should also ask them to lighten up on their criticism of
the company, and explain the negative impact their
behavior is having upon the rest of the team. This
conversation may not make a great deal of difference, but it
will remove any misunderstandings – real or perceived.

I would strongly suggest that you keep and document any
notes made during the conversations. You may also
receive some frank feedback about their current situation,
discover some unknown facts to put everything into a
different light or even uncover some burnout. Based upon
your feelings about the outcome of the meeting, you may
want to speak to your Human Resources advisor too.

Plan “A” is then to monitor their progress and mentor/guide
these individuals when they step out of line and reinforce
their behavior when. You should be positive, but firm and
leave no room for misunderstanding. Your parallel step is
to come up with a “Plan B”, which is planning for life
without one or both of these SE’s. This may involve placing
them on a rotational assignment or a direct transfer to
another division such as consulting, engineering or
product management. Beware of sending your problems
onto another manager, so you need to be upfront with
everyone. Even if you do believe these SE’s are
indispensible you need to determine if the productivity
loss on the rest of your team is really worth it. In my
experience, if people do not shape up over the following 4-
6 weeks they are usually a lost cause, as by that time their
impact on the rest of the SE team is overpowering as they
drag everyone else down with them.

I have seen other techniques used in such situations. In
one case a high-maintenance employee was assigned a
respected mentor from the sales organization to counsel
him about his behavior. In another case, several of the
senior SE’s on the team directly approached the prima
donna to request she change her behavior.

The one consistent theme is that you cannot ignore such
behavior and need to take action. Such action can be direct
or indirect, but it needs to happen so that the prima donna
needs to change their behavior or move on to another
position inside or outside the company.