“When Smart People are Bad Employees”

Fri, Mar 4, 2011


Great read from Ben Horowitz describing how extremely intelligent and capable individuals can easily double as bad employees. For instance, take the Flake.

Example 2: The Flake

Some brilliant people can be totally unreliable. At Opsware, we once hired an unequivocal genius—I’ll call him Roger (not his real name). Roger was an engineer in an area of the product where a typical new hire would take 3 months to become fully productive. Roger came fully up to speed in two days. On his third day, we gave him a project that was scheduled to take one month. Roger completed the project in 3 days with nearly flawless quality. More specifically, he completed the project in 72 hours. 72 non-stop hours: No stops, no sleep, no nothing but coding. In his first quarter on the job, he was the best employee that we had and we immediately promoted him.

Then Roger changed. He would miss days of work without calling in. Then he would miss weeks of work. When he finally showed up, he apologized profusely, but the behavior didn’t stop. His work product also degraded. He became sloppy and unfocused. I could not understand how such a stellar employee could go so haywire. His manager wanted to fire him, because the team could no longer count on Roger for anything. I resisted. I knew that the genius was still in him and I wanted us to find it. We never did. It turns out that Roger was bi-polar and had two significant drug problems: 1. He did not like taking his bi-polar medication and 2. He was addicted to cocaine. Ultimately, we had to fire Roger, but even now, it pains me to think about what might have been.

One need not be bi-polar to be a flake, but flakey behavior often has a seriously problematic root cause. Causes range from self-destructive streaks to drug habits to moonlighting for other employers. A company is a team effort and, no matter how high an employee’s potential, you cannot get value from him unless he does his work in a manner in which he can be relied upon.


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