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Friday, December 14 , 2018, 1:20 am | Fair 47º


Paul Burri: Not All Prima Donnas Are At La Scala

Chances are you're working with one right now. Here's how to cope.

The dictionary defines a “prima donna” as the principal female lead singer in an opera. So why is that over the course of my career in manufacturing — not opera — I have had to encounter and deal with prima donnas? I guess it’s because the second dictionary definition says a prima donna is ... a temperamental person; a person who takes adulation and privileged treatment as a right and reacts with petulance to criticism or inconvenience.

Paul Burri
Paul Burri
Now we’re getting closer to the type of person whom I’ve had to deal with over the years. I doubt there is one employer who hasn’t had to deal with a prima donna in her organization at one time or another. The prima donna I’m talking about is the person who thinks he knows everything there is to know about his job and thinks he is indispensable to you and to the company. Worse, he also thinks he knows how to run the whole company. And beyond worse, he is also the person who, thinking he is indispensable, gives you “attitude” every time you ask him to do something. It sometimes seems like he is doing you a favor by working for you.

While I was working for other companies, it was frequently necessary for me to deal with prima donnas. It was always the employee who had been with the company for 23 years before I ever got there or the one who was the expert (really) at whatever he was expert at. And he was the one you knew would be very difficult to replace if he were ever to quit — or if he finally “got to you” one day and you fired him. He was also the one your supervisor or the owner of the company knew was “indispensable.” So you put up with his attitude and deferred to him in matters of special privilege, pay rate and whatever else he wanted at the particular moment. You had to give him the jobs he wanted to do rather than what sometimes needed to be done and there was no one else available to do it.

So when I started my own company, I vowed I would never tolerate any prima donnas. Wrong again. When you have a small company, you want as few employees as possible. If you’ve ever had to meet payroll on a weekly basis, you will surely understand what I’m talking about. But the advantage of having just a few “key” employees, and a lower payroll, means that you risk developing one or more prima donna employees.

How do you eliminate this risk? As the man says, “It ain’t easy.” You could hire a new employee and start training him to replace the prima donna. Of course, that approach adds another employee to the payroll and will surely enrage your prima donna. To reduce the risk of becoming a “slave” to the prima donna, you need to be as well-qualified to do her job as she is. Now if worse comes to worse, you can jump in and do her job until you can hire her replacement or train one of your other employees to do the job. This means, of course, that you will now be doing two jobs — what you would normally be doing plus the recently fired prima donna’s. (I told you it wouldn’t be easy.)

It sure is fun being your own boss.

Click here for a related story on a Secrets of Survival workshop sponsored by SCORE-Service Corps of Retired Executives. The workshop, headlined by entrepreneur and philanthropist Paul Orfalea, will be held Jan. 22 at the Santa Barbara Public Library’s Faulkner Gallery. A panel of SCORE experts will share their expertise with small business owners grappling with today’s fragile economy.

Paul Burri is an entrepreneur, inventor, columnist, engineer and iconoclast. He is not in the advertising business but he is a small business counselor with the Santa Barbara chapter of the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE).

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