When Talented Employees Aren’t Worth Keeping on the Team

Talent doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Within a team context, people add or subtract value. You have to determine how much value each team member adds, and what idiosyncrasies are worth tolerating for the good of the mission.

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.
 — Ben Horowitz,
When Smart People are Bad Employees

If I’m the most brilliant and talented developer or designer (or assistant or strategist) on the team, but I’m unreliable, I’m subtracting value. I’m a minus. I sabotage the group effort.

Sometimes shining accomplishments can outweigh (or at least outshine) unreliability in other areas, at least for a season. But eventually untrustworthy employees put the mission in debt. Eventually no surplus of talent can overcome a lack of integrity.

Longterm there’s no correlation between being valuable to the team and being undependable.

FIG. 1:

I learned this the hard way. I had two severance packages under my belt by the time I hit 30. I had a pattern of putting my teams (and my clients) in debt due to my unreliability.

Being undependable throws shrapnel. It hurts everyone — the mission, the team, relationships, and your reputation.

There are any number of reasons why it happens. Taking on too much work. Lack of interest. Laziness. Mishandled time estimates. Ignorance. Naiveté. Poor habits. Procrastination. Chuck Close talks about the amateurness of delaying work while waiting for inspiration:

If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lighting to strike you in the brain, you’re not going to make an awful lot of work.

Sometimes you can get away with waiting on the perfect storm. Sometimes waiting is part of making. But only sometimes. Only occasionally. Because talent and unreliability can’t coexist in the same employee without eventually putting a team in the red. There’s simply too much to do. If there wasn’t, you wouldn’t need a team.

FIG. 2:

There’s no overlap. At least not for the long haul. Highly talented reliable employees are highly valuable team members. They keep the team in the black. But a less-talented reliable employee can often add more long-term value to a team environment than a flaky hero. (No matter how many super powers they have).