The Devilish Delight of Dealing with Divas

Working towards a bigger picture picture an keeping up an ongoing conversation are the keys to working well with divas, says Adrian Collette, immediate past-CEO of Opera Australia and VP, Engagement at University of Melbourne.


Diva, Divo, Dive: we know them, we love them, and sometimes we love to hate them – those superbly gifted people who can light up a stage, a sports field or a company. Very often, because their outrageous individual talent challenges what might be possible, they can also challenge the culture and coherence of an ensemble, a team, or an organisation.

Moving from sixteen years at the helm of Opera Australia to Australia’s highest performing University, I have been mulling this subject over the past few months: how to manage profoundly imaginative, talented people that re-order our appreciation of what is possible and make the world anew; but whose obsessiveness frequently makes them ‘difficult’ to deal with?

At our national opera company I worked every day with superbly talented people – not only singers, but highly trained musicians, inspiring conductors and directors – the best of the best. (I remember hearing composer Richard Mills say: ‘if you don’t love singers, you have no right working for an opera company!’) At the University of Melbourne I am surrounded by superbly imaginative and clever researchers and teachers. And if that were not enough, from time to time the University competes internationally to recruit more researchers (just as the opera company competes to recruit artists), attracting them to join us and setting them up – whether in a lab or an institute – to ply their talents, regardless of the quotidian issues that occupy mortal management.

I have been struck by the similarities; and struck also by the similar issues of how an organisation gets the most out of its superstars while managing their super-egos.

Of course there are divas and divas. I am not concerned, for example, with the highly gifted singer one might invite to perform Tosca (now that’s a role for a diva if ever there was one!). Employed on a short-term contract if, for all her talent she proves too difficult to ‘deal’ with, the very clear option is simply not to invite her back. From Maria Callas to Kathleen Battle the opera world is full of stories about supremely talented artists who were simply too hot to handle from time to time and General Managers who ‘regrettably let them go.’

In whatever field, then, I am not talking about the casual employee. Rather, I remain endlessly fascinated with the other kind of diva – the one who you must have within an organisation to give it the creative drive and ambition it needs to succeed, but frequently rides roughshod over rules, regulations and people. Think of an ambitious artistic director; a publishing director; or a creative director in an advertising agency. Think of the spookily talented scientist or engineer who designs cars of the future or imagines the future of high-tech. Or, indeed, think of off-the-chart brilliant researchers who are obsessed with proving their thought-experiment to the world. These are frequently people who both delight us with their brilliance and burn us with their mercurial ferocity. These are the people an enlightened CEO has to recruit, nurture and ‘manage’. In the recently observable cult of the celebrity CEO, our diva can be the CEO themselves – whether of a multi-national company, an NGO or even a school, for example – at which point, the diva problem belongs to the Board and most particularly its Chair.

These are frequently people who both delight us with their brilliance and burn us with their mercurial ferocity. These are the people an enlightened CEO has to recruit, nurture and ‘manage’.

In my professional life, spanning the publishing industry, the arts industry and now the tertiary ‘industry’, I have experienced my share of such organisationally necessary but difficult divas. These are the people who imagine the world differently and then drive us (mad) to get their vision of things recognised and validated. To imagine the world differently, to create a different order to things – whether you are interpreting Hamlet, or conducting Wagner’s Ring Cycle, or questioning how man relates to machine, or imagining a new law of the universe – such acts require tenacious egotism. These are people who feel entitled to stamp their view of things on to the world, to say ‘this is how it should be!’

The relentless energy of such egotism can be attractive to an organisation – and certainly to its clients and the media. It can also be exhausting. (The media loves a diva; it will celebrate the cult of the diva, while waiting cunningly for the slightest sign of a fall from grace.) The best organisations or, rather, an organisation experiencing a really productive or ‘golden’ period in its history (think of Steve Job’s ‘Apple’, or the Met Orchestra under James Levine) accept this tension and thrive because of it.

What strikes me as a telling question for an organisation dealing with such a diva is motive: organisations, especially creative ones, are culturally complex – influenced by the human thoughts and emotions that make them up and the quality of the leadership that dares to lead. But the organisations I have worked with have one undeniable quality in common: their people can tell when a diva is performing for the sake of the organisation or some greater good; and they have an unerring instinct for when a diva is performing for the sake of themselves.

…the organisations I have worked with have one undeniable quality in common: their people can tell when a diva is performing for the sake of the organisation or some greater good; and they have an unerring instinct for when a diva is performing for the sake of themselves.

(Sometimes, I have seen the egotistical energy necessary for creative expression slip into something much less interesting – narcissism. There is a profound difference between having the confidence to make an environment better, smarter, or more productive, and making an environment in your own image. The star diva that simply wants the world to reflect their brilliance back to themselves will always be found out by the organisation itself, and when that begins to happen there is little a CEO or Board can do to fix it.) As a CEO I developed a pretty simple notion about how to deal with divas. Essentially, you need to sustain the quality of the conversation around them and keep it as inclusive as possible. In fact you need to sustain at least three kinds of conversations:

First, there is the all-important conversation you sustain with your diva-colleague. Divas don’t like to be ‘managed.’ Part of what drives them is to question the nature and purpose of things, accompanied by the fiercely independent habits of thinking and feeling that such a drive implies. But what I think a CEO can do is keep a conversation up to a fiercely creative colleague – by which I mean create the context for their superlative ideas and talent to flourish. You actually have to create a sense of place or purpose that is larger than the brilliance of any single idea or notion; which of course requires you to be sure of what the organisation should be achieving. By being able to talk about that purpose intelligently and comprehensively, you sustain a context for the mercurially gifted talent both to thrive and contribute. It’s never a question of right and wrong – we need our divas to question our sense of what might be possible, and even our sense of right and wrong! Rather, it’s a question of providing a quality of discourse that encourages such talent to understand and focus on an organisation’s broader goals.

You actually have to create a sense of place or purpose that is larger than the brilliance of any single idea or notion; which of course requires you to be sure of what the organisation should be achieving.

The second conversation is self-evident: as CEO you must ensure not only the confidence of the Board but, in the long run, the confidence of the organisation you are leading. A superbly talented artist or researcher is often too obsessed with their vision to deal with organisational complexity. But an effective CEO respects organisational complexity and has a crucial role both in explaining the value of a challenging vision and making colleagues feel respected. One important part of dealing with divas is, again, reminding the organisation that there is something larger at stake than even the most gifted individual talent, and giving people confidence that their concerns will be heard and respected.

Finally, there is the conversation a CEO or Chair sustains with key external stakeholders, whether government, sponsors, philanthropists or even the media. Our diva, no matter what their individual genius, must never be bigger than the brand and reputation of the company or organisation they serve. Given the creative egotism involved, it is vital to ensure that the individual diva does not run away with the organisation’s brand. However brilliant our diva, that is not a risk worth taking.

In complex and ambitious organisations, what I don’t think works with individually brilliant people is to invoke hierarchy or ‘lay down the law.’ (Sometimes you might have to, but this is a sure sign in itself that the relationship has failed and is very likely over.) Rather, I think the most important task a CEO or Chairman has in dealing with individual brilliance is to ensure that the conversation being sustained at the most senior levels of an organisation; between the leadership of that organisation and its people; and between that organisation and its crucial external stakeholders is always larger than any individual talent.

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