Case Study: The Unmanageable Star Performer

"Did you see the report from the India office?"

"I'm just opening it now," Caroline said on the other end of the line. Stefan Konrad and Caroline Dougherty went way back. They had started at Leman Highlander & Company together more than 20 years before, as fresh graduates from business school. Now Stefan was the head of the consultancy's South Asia and Middle East business, and Caroline was its global human resources director. Their offices at Leman's New York headquarters were just a few doors away from each other.

Caroline continued, "The numbers look good. Three new accounts, including NMM Technology — impressive. Vijay's working his magic as usual."

"For sure — keep reading," Stefan said.

(Editor's Note: This fictionalized case study will appear in a forthcoming issue of Harvard Business Review, along with commentary from experts and readers. If you'd like your comment to be considered for publication, please be sure to include your full name, company or university affiliation, and email address.)

He waited, and then Caroline's tone changed.

"Again!"

"That's right," he said. "Turnover went up again — fourth quarter in a row. We're hitting 32%, way over the industry average. And those employee survey results are abysmal."

"He's never been one to care about the soft side of things," Caroline said. "Much to my chagrin."

Stefan had been worried about the Mumbai office for a while. So far it had grown faster than any of their other offices; business was booming. And yet every time he visited, he sensed that people weren't happy. Vijay Kumar, the India office managing partner, and Aparna Nayak, his second in command, always assured Stefan that things were fine and reminded him of their growth figures.

Leman Highlander's partners had aggressively recruited Vijay eight years earlier to set up their Mumbai office. He'd been a star at McKinsey, with perfect Indian and U.S. credentials and a sharp business sense. Everyone agreed he was the right person to build the firm's presence in the region, and two of the partners made it their mission to get him to sign on. Three years later, Vijay had more than proved his worth. The numbers coming out of Mumbai were fantastic, and big clients seemed to flock to him. Companies had deserted McKinsey, Bain, and BCG for Vijay. The partners were thrilled. Only Caroline and Stefan seemed to have taken notice of the ongoing personnel troubles.

"We need to do something," Caroline said.

"I'm going to be there next week. Let me see what's going on."

"I guess you should have a conversation with Vijay."

"I'm not sure."

"You a little scared of him?" she teased.

Stefan laughed. "Maybe, yes," he admitted. "A little."

Out of the Question
Stefan's suitcase was open on the bed.

"You always amaze me with how little you carry," his wife, Clara, said, watching him lay two suits neatly into the carry-on. He was on the road close to 200 days of the year, so he had packing down to a science.

"Where first this time?" she asked.

"Mumbai. I've got that meeting with Vijay."

"Oh, right. What did his assistant say?"

"Aparna's not his assistant, honey. I told you that."

"From what you said, it sounds like he treats everybody like one."

"Yes, that may be part of the problem," Stefan replied. Aparna had been pretty tight-lipped on the phone. She'd said that she and Vijay were concerned about the turnover too, but it was typical for where the industry was at right now, and Stefan shouldn't be overly worried.

"She couldn't tell you what's wrong?"

"No, but she said she'd set up a meeting with some of the consultants." That had actually been his suggestion, but Aparna hadn't resisted.

"I need to be careful," he said. "You remember what happened last time."

Two years earlier, during one of Stefan's regular visits to Mumbai, he'd asked Vijay about two consultants who had abruptly quit, claiming that Vijay was too difficult to work for. Vijay had stormed out of the office and immediately sent a resignation e-mail to Thomas Leman, the firm's managing partner. Thomas managed to talk Vijay down, but he gave Stefan clear orders: Going forward, he should do whatever he could to keep Vijay happy. India was now the brightest star in the region, and number two in revenues for Leman Highlander. No one on the leadership team wanted the man responsible for that to go anywhere.

"Plus," Stefan continued, "I don't technically have authority over him, because we're all
equal as partners. I need to get approval to take any formal action."

"Like firing him?"

"That's completely out of the question."

Not Everyone Is Dissatisfied
As Stefan walked into the office building on Nariman Point, his phone rang. Seeing Vijay's number, he picked up.

"I wanted to welcome you," Vijay said. "Unfortunately, I won't see you until dinner tonight.
I'll be with the team at NMM all day. It's a prestigious case, as you know."

Stefan couldn't say he was disappointed.

"I hear you're checking up on me," Vijay said with a chuckle, but Stefan heard an edge to his voice.

"I'm here for the meeting with Kerimer Engineering tomorrow," he replied. "You said having a non-Indian would help." Then, casually, he added, "And yes, I'll talk with your staff today. The usual skip-level."

Vijay was silent.

"You still there?" Stefan asked.

"Yes, you go ahead with the meeting. I just got to the NMM office. I'll see you at dinner."

He hung up before Stefan could say good-bye.

Aparna met Stefan at the elevator. They stopped to talk with a few people in the office, and then she led him to a conference room at the back of the floor.

"I set up a meeting at 3:00 PM," she said. "Some of our best consultants, some new people, and some who have been around for a while."

"I'd love to hear what you think before I meet with them," he said.

"I think we're doing our best here. Results are even better than before, and the pipeline is very strong. We're thought of as the best training ground for new consultants in the industry. Some people complain, yes. But that's not everyone. Anyway, I will send the group in when it's time."

Stefan took out his laptop and looked at the office floor beyond the large glass window. Everyone seemed busy but relaxed. It was different from the previous times he'd visited, when people had been rushing around, ducking in and out of boisterous meetings in conference rooms, obviously trying to anticipate the boss's movements, moods, and demands. He realized that he'd never before been in the office when Vijay wasn't there.

"He's the Master"
Stefan opened the meeting by saying, "We're concerned at headquarters about turnover. We can't run this office without a strong team. I need to understand what we can do better."

When no one responded, he asked Amal, the most junior guy in the room, for his opinion. Amal leaned forward and told Stefan how happy he and his colleagues were that he'd asked to see them. But then he looked around and didn't say anything else.

After a very long pause, a senior consultant named Rehan cleared his throat. He spoke with great deliberation: "We're all dedicated to Leman Highlander and to the Mumbai office. But things have been a little difficult here." He explained that Vijay had always been a demanding boss, but Rehan and others had expected him to at least ease up once the office was established. "Unfortunately," he said, "that hasn't happened. If anything, it's gotten worse. He seems impossible to please."

Then several others spoke. At first they were diplomatic, emphasizing how much they loved their job and the firm. But then they launched into complaints that all centered on Vijay: He was never satisfied. No one could work as hard as he did. His creative genius was intimidating. People tried to be like him, but there was only one Vijay. It felt as if he didn't trust or respect anyone but Aparna and the consultants who worked around the clock.

"Don't get us wrong — we're learning tons from him," said a younger senior consultant. "There's no one in the whole industry who can develop and run a consulting business the way he does. He's the master. But I'm asking myself whether working for him is costing me more than I gain. I never see my family anymore, especially if I try to keep up with his hours. I'm answering e-mails at five in the morning."

"That's right," said a woman at the back of the room. "No one leaves the office if he's here, because they're afraid of retribution. If he sees you leave "early," he's on you the next day, giving you more and more work to do."

People went on to explain that even the highest achievers felt inadequate next to Vijay, and many had left. Those who stayed wanted to be a part of the success story but were confused about how to contribute. Vijay made all the decisions.

As the grievances piled up, Stefan started to sweat. This was worse than he'd thought. He tried to move the conversation in a more constructive direction: "What have you done so far? Has anyone spoken to him?"

Everyone looked to Rehan again. "Well, several of us have spoken to Aparna, because she seems to be close to him," he said. "But we don't know. Maybe she is also afraid for her job. She doesn't want to upset him. And we don't blame her. He's made comments about how those who complain are just not up to the standards of the consulting industry."

Another woman spoke: "He says, 'Consulting is all about hard work. First you have to get clients, and then you have to give results.' We agree, but we can't be perfect all the time. You know, Stefan, this place is starting to get a reputation."

This was what he had feared. Not only were they losing people, but those people were bad-mouthing Leman Highlander, making it more difficult to recruit replacements. Vijay's reputation had helped attract the best hires in the past, but now it sounded like a hindrance.

Growing Pains?

Later that evening, Stefan found Aparna in her office.

"Was that meeting helpful, I hope?" she asked. He wasn't sure how to answer.

"They must've said the usual," she went on, lowering her voice. "But he's brilliant as well as tough. And he's the heart and soul of this place. Without Vijay, there is no Mumbai office."

Stefan knew she was right. Vijay had built the office, and he spent every waking hour thinking about how to make it better.

"Does Vijay know how unhappy people are?" he asked.

"He's seen the employee survey results," Aparna said. "And of course he knows. But he thinks they need to grow up, and he has a point. It's become a pastime here to complain about him instead of just focusing on the work. He says that if we give it time, the real complainers will leave, our strongest consultants will remain, and new blood will come in. He thinks this is just a typical pain of a growing organization. It will soon subside."

"That seems rather optimistic of him," Stefan said.

Aparna shrugged. "You should also know that Vijay is very sensitive about it." She told Stefan that Vijay had called her at 11:00 one night after reading the employee survey results. The firm required each office to conduct an annual survey, and the feedback had included several negative comments about Vijay's tough management style. Aparna said that Vijay had gone on a tirade about how he wasn't appreciated and there were other firms that would value his talents.

"Is he talking with other firms?" he asked.

"I know he's had offers," she replied.

Stefan pursed his lips. That wasn't what he wanted to hear.

After a moment, Aparna spoke: "I know you didn't ask for my advice, and this may be out of line, but if I were you, I wouldn't bring this up at dinner tonight. He will not like it. Focus on the client meeting tomorrow. "

"How can I not address this? You sent me a report with some startling figures. It's my job to get answers and report back to the leadership team."

"You got your answers already though, right?"

Her phone rang, and she glanced at the number.

"It looks like your car is here," she said. "Are you ready to go?"

"Actually," Stefan said, "I'm going to take a walk first. I'll be with the driver in a few minutes."

Question: What should Stefan say to Vijay over dinner?

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