How to Make Sure Your Next Hire Is a Star, Not a Prima Donna

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Originally published in Inc.

By Joel Peterson

Divas, those unusually self-confident, often difficult, and inevitably problematic performers are common in fields like sports and entertainment. But they can be found all too often in business as well. At least once in his or her career, every senior executive probably mutters: “Why the heck did I ever hire this jerk?”

Most likely, these prima donnas were mistaken for stars during the hiring process. Impressive imposters, they looked the part on paper and in person. Perhaps they had a well-known name or reputation. Maybe they put up soaring sales numbers somewhere, won important industry awards, went to top-ranked schools or worked at world-class companies.

Regardless, it was all a charade; stars they were not.

The difference between a real star and a diva isn’t easy to spot, especially at first glance. Both can be charismatic, hard-working, passionate, pragmatists with a long resume of past accomplishments. Divas, in particular, tend to be unusually creative, as well (possibly because they are one of their best creations.)

Clues do exist, however. Here are a few tips for reading the stars:

1. They hog the spotlight.

I remember one particular time when I was convinced we’d hired a star, but he soon began to grab credit and to diminish the contributions of others. He seemed to want to advance his career and image, whatever the cost. Stars also win, and they take bows, but they quickly shine the light on everyone, celebrate the team win, and then get back to work. When hiring, I like to recruit from other executives that I trust. I do my homework on everyone I interview and talk not only to their supervisors but, when possible, also to some of the people they managed. It’s amazing how quickly any negative behavior comes out.

2. They have a dictatorial rule.

Ruling by fear –or blame — is the diva’s modus operandi. On the other hand, stars show courage and compassion for their colleagues and subordinates. They are also ready and willing to take responsibility for business failures, especially group failures, even when unwarranted. I always look at a candidate’s work history to uncover clues about their management style. Have they been promoted to positions of increasing responsibility? To oversee more direct reports? Ineffective leaders are rarely promoted over and over, so job hopping can be a sign of a potential hire that doesn’t get it.

3. They’re a backstabber. 

Stars are trustworthy. Divas? Watch your back. Because of their insecurity, they won’t hesitate to do what they believe, misguidedly, they must do to protect their interests, no matter who else it hurts. When hiring, ask around to get a feel for how the candidate has acted in previous jobs. Do they have a good reputation, or a history of backstabbing behavior that has left coworkers isolated?

Even with these clues, caution is a must when judging a potential hire, especially if they seem too good to be true. Divas are usually closeted, out of self-interest, and can be almost impossible to identify, as they can be such charming cheerleaders (for themselves, mostly.) Stars can be just as challenging to uncloak, unfortunately, as they can be unduly modest.

Inevitably, divas will slip through the hiring process. The best an executive can hope for is to locate these charlatans early in their tenure, bring out the hook and pull them off the corporate stage. Otherwise, you’ll risk having them drive away the real stars.

Remember: Divas do not glitter like stars; they are black holes, sucking all the surrounding energy into themselves.

Great corporate leaders, like great coaches, conductors, choreographers, and directors, must always be on the lookout for what truly shines.

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