Why geniuses don't have jobs

Human brain iStockphoto

(MoneyWatch) We have a massive problem with our employment system, which robs companies of great talent, and creates cultures of mediocrity. The problem is that we don't know how to employ geniuses.

For this blog post, I'm not defining genius as IQ, nor am I saying we're all geniuses. We're not. Thanks in part to the Steve Jobs legacy, "genius" has become synonymous with someone who is smart and able to offer out-of-the-box ideas. The inevitable conclusion is that we're all geniuses in some way.

In this piece, let's define a genius as a person with some ability that would rate a 9 or 10 on a ten-point scale. Genius usually shows up in certain contexts and not others. Someone I worked with recently discovered a gift for "inspiring small technology companies that their work, if successful, can change the world." Because genius is context-specific, the same person probably wouldn't be able to ignite the first spark of inspiration in workers at Walmart, Kaiser, or Starwood Hotels. Genius is often so narrow that it passes unidentified through competency screenings that many companies use to find "the right people."

The heart of the problem for geniuses -- people who are 9 or 10 at something -- are that they are probably a 2-3 in other areas. Joe Polish is a product marketing genius (9+), especially for items that are novel, fun, or focus on personal development. He charges people $25k to join his "25k club," and people I interviewed from this group report receiving far greater value than they give up when they write that big check. Joe is also stubborn, crass and prone to topic-jump in a way that makes it seem like he's listening to voices we can't hear. His sense of humor alone would make him unemployable in most big companies. So in terms of "playing by the rules," he's a "2" on a good day.

Joe would be a dangerous hire for a company. Yes, he's a genius in product marketing. But the chance that he'd offend someone in a conservative culture is 100% -- in the first week.

So Joe has done what geniuses do -- he went out on his own, crafted his own path, and is running his own company where he gets to make the rules. While this is the right decision for Joe, the fact that every company in the world isn't calling him for help highlights the problem.

In my consulting work, I've met three categories of geniuses.

The first type -- let's call them "gregarious geniuses" -- have an opinion about everything and don't suffer fools (and there are lots of fools in management, so they are often the power structure in companies). And in some area, they have clarity that lets them see through steel. I know gregarious geniuses that can spot a company's strategic flaw so quickly that you wonder if they've been hacking the executives' emails. And their presentation of the problem implies that everyone involved in setting the initial strategy is an idiot and we should bring back the rack as the only legitimate method of punishment for such epic stupidity. Gregarious geniuses would make ideal consultants, but are often not hired by firms or clients because they might offend someone. (Wouldn't Yahoo be in better shape if they had a few more geniuses around?) Some teach for a living, critiquing companies in the safe zone of the classroom. Others I know sit at home and watch CNBC, offering critiques that make the talking heads on that show appear to have failed basic finance. Sadly, most gregarious geniuses get fired from companies because they can't control their tongue. Many have ADHD or related problems.

The second category is the "isolated genius." They are at the opposite end of the extroversion continuum, choosing to say so little, making people wonder if they can actually talk. They are usually attracted to technical problems. They don't like teams, and they would rather do work than report on status. When they talk, they do so like an encyclopedia conveys information. Emails get no response or one-word answers. Some may have Asperger's Syndrome or social phobia. Isolated geniuses are rarely hired because they don't interview well. When they are hired, they are usually relegated to solve problems in quiet. Once the fun problems are solved, they often quit. Isolated geniuses may be quiet, but their need for a challenge should be heard as a primal scream.

The third type is the "unpredictable genius." A less kind word would be "unstable." On their good days, they seem like ideal executives -- able to take lots of views into account, plot the best course forward, and exude so much energy, the lights are brighter when they're in the room. On their bad days, they are moody, unresponsive, slow, and pessimistic. They may have bipolar disorder, or something else.

One of the trends you may have noticed is that all three types of geniuses may benefit from professional help. The connection between mental illness and crisis leadership is made in A First-Rate Madness by Nassir Ghaemi -- required reading (in my opinion) for anyone who wants to attract great talent.

So what do you do if you're one of these geniuses? Get someone else to sing your praises. I've done this for many people I've met as students, clients, or through my social tribes. The script to a potential employer goes something like this: "I have a person for you, and she's the best in the world at doing X. Off the charts in her ability. And with great ability comes oddity: Y." If the hiring manager knows the tradeoffs, they'll often do the right thing for everyone by hiring the genius, and then working to minimize the deficits, or clean up messes when they happen.

What do you do if you look at your team and crave geniuses? How do you find them? And how do you deal with inevitable problems that accompany great ability? There are "genius finders." Most aren't in business executive search, they've just build tribes of geniuses. Joe Polish is one such person. Genius finders know other genius finders, so if they can't help you, they probably know someone who can. And yes, genius finders are often geniuses themselves, with their social connections acting as a genius multiplier effect and support group in dealing with a world that understand them.

On risk mitigation, here are two suggestions:

First, have clear conversations about what is, and isn't, acceptable -- and plan to repeat that action every week or so. Many geniuses become surgeons, and are famous for throwing temper tantrums or harassing people. That's not ok -- no matter how great the ability. The cost of giving one person a free pass on the rules is to say the rules don't matter. It's also insulting to everyone else, and will drop your culture into the "my life sucks" zone on the "Tribal Leadership scale."

Second, set development goals that bring the person closer to a 4 or 5 on the ability scale in the problem areas. Many geniuses need professional advice, and managers shouldn't play amateur psychologists. Others need someone to help them develop a sense that most of us already have -- like saying inappropriate words in public needs to stop. There are training programs, books, and coaches for just about every type of problem. Overwhelm the genius with offers of help. The message has to be: We value you (the whole person, not just the ability), and we want to help you make this work.

Ever work with a genius? Or are you a genius and find it tough to put your great ability to work? If so, I hope you'll make a comment below.

  • Dave Logan On Twitter»

    View all articles by Dave Logan on CBS MoneyWatch »
    Dave Logan is a USC faculty member, management consultant, and the best-selling author of four books including Tribal Leadership and The Three Laws of Performance. He is also Senior Partner of CultureSync, a management consulting firm, which he co-founded in 1997.

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