The superstars in a company often do not play by the rules. They do whatever they want and treat other people any way they want, because they think the organization cannot do without them. Such is the case with former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly. It appears that he was arrogant and dismissive of his coworkers at best, and possibly guilty of sexual harassment at worst. Nevertheless, he got away with it for over 20 years because he was a superstar.
21st Century Fox, Fox News’ parent company, forced O’Reilly out earlier this week because major companies pulled their advertisements from O’Reilly’s show, “The O’Reilly Factor.” They only took action when O’Reilly lost his superstar status. They should have pulled the plug on him years ago. But the more superstardom he gained, the more afraid they were to take action.
Harry Bradley, the legendary founder of Allen-Bradley (now Rockwell Automation), demonstrated the approach 21st Century Fox should have taken. I worked at Allen-Bradley for 13 years, and often saw Bradley walk around the factory during the third shift. He was not checking to see if people were working; he was checking to see if they were being treated right. If he found out they were not, heads would roll.
Bradley did not care if the rolled heads were superstars or not. Allen-Bradley taught its leaders that it did not matter if you were a superstar. What mattered was how you treated your people. If you did not treat people right, you were history.
Many leaders are afraid to follow this approach. They do not take action with disruptive superstars early enough. The longer they avoid confronting them, the worse a problem the superstars get.
So why don’t leaders confront bad superstar behavior? Many leaders are afraid to upset them. Others fear what will happen if they leave. But what all leaders should really be afraid of is what will happen if they stay. Fox News had already lost many talented employees because of O’Reilly’s behavior. Now they will lose revenue, ratings, and prestige as a result of this scandal.
There are five simple and quick lessons leaders can take away from Bill O’Reilly’s firing. First, do not tolerate leaders who bully instead of motivate. All they’re doing is dragging down your morale and making your employees less productive.
Second, watch for early signs of arrogance with your superstars. Nip this in the bud right away with clear coaching. Arrogance usually stems from a sense of self-importance, so make sure they do not start thinking they are more important than the rest of the organization.
Third, make sure you do not create a situation where superstars think the company can’t survive without them. If you are always talking about how important your superstars are, pretty soon everyone will believe it. As a result, the non-superstars will believe they are not worthy contributors. That will only further damage morale and overall performance.
Fourth, do not hesitate to discipline leaders (superstars or not) who are arrogant and disrespectful of other people. Your workforce will applaud and reward you for it.
Fifth, and most importantly, be prepared. Some superstars are so arrogant that no amount of coaching will work with them. Have a backup plan and candidate waiting on the bench to take over if things go awry. Make sure you have a communication plan ready to go with the superstar’s customers, clients, or vendors for when they depart.
Fox had no such game plan in place. If anything, the company should have been better prepared after Roger Ailes, former chairman and CEO of Fox News, resigned last summer when similar sexual harassment allegations surfaced against him. If you want to prevent superstars from damaging your company’s reputation, make sure to take care of the problem as quickly as possible.
Steven L. Blue is the president and CEO of Miller Ingenuity and author of American Manufacturing 2.0: What Went Wrong and How to Make It Right.