Can Your Organization Handle 'Clever' Employees?

Last Updated Mar 17, 2010 12:57 PM EDT

Gareth Jones is a Fellow of the Centre for Management Development at London Business School and a visiting professor at INSEAD. He and collaborator Rob Goffee want to help managers figure out the secrets of managing the supremely talented but sometimes cantankerous "clever" people within their organizations. Their recent book, Clever: Leading Your Smartest, Most Creative People spans endeavors from business to sports. I spoke with Jones

BNET: What was the genesis of the research and the book?

Jones: Rob and I are sometimes described as "old sociologists." That means we're fanatical note-takers and keep extensive fieldwork diaries wherever we are working. Every few weeks, we get together and say "what have you noticed?" Quite often, the answer is "nothing."

We had recently written a book called Why Should Anyone be Led by You?, which was based on a McKinsey Prize-winning article we'd done in the Harvard Business Review, so we were focused on the puzzles of leadership. I was working with Price Waterhouse Coopers at the time, and Rob was working with a rather sophisticated pharmaceutical company. I discussed with him the fact that these partners at PWC faced really rather difficult leadership challenges --and by the way, they were pretty hard to lead themselves. Rob was finding that the people he was working with at Roche Pharmaceuticals were the same and didn't quite fit the traditional leadership models. We exchanged notes and found that we had made pretty much the same observations. Based on that, we wrote an article for the HBR entitled "Leading Clever People."

This got a bigger e-mail response than anything we'd ever written. It was kind of staggering. We got responses from all over the world and from a lot of the places you'd expect like law firms, consulting firms, software companies and so on. But perhaps the biggest response came from the healthcare industry.

BNET: Who are these "clevers," as you call them? What is your definition of a clever person?

Jones: We very quickly found that there are clever people in unexpected places. We started to refine what we meant by "clever." We say they are people who have the capacity to create disproportionate amounts of value with the resources an organization makes available to them. In that sense, they are rather different than poets, who don't need organizations. But if you are going to find a cure for bowel cancer, you're going to need an institution around need a hospital or research lab. If you're going to create an entirely new operating system for a PC, you probably need to be at Microsoft or Oracle or Apple. These are people who need organizations, but who have a rather tense relationship with them.

BNET: How does your book approach both the opportunities and the difficulties inherent in managing clever employees?

Jones: We start by examining some clever individuals because people from business schools like us have been talking about teams for so long that we sometimes forget that individuals can make a huge impact. So, it's worth thinking about the kinds of organizations and the leadership styles that really suit these people.

Then we look at "clever teams." We begin by looking at Lewis Hamilton and the team that won the Formula 1 championship on the last lap of the last race. It's a dramatic story, and Lewis Hamilton looks like quite the hero, but we explain that he did not do it on his own. There was a team of very clever people who were advising him about things like tire pressures and the state of the competitors at the absolute moment that he was able to win the championship. We look at different types of clever teams: creative teams, techie teams, professional services teams (which have the interesting angle that they are often client-obsessed but not that interested in their own staff).

Finally, the book ends by saying that the real task is not just leading clever individuals and forming clever teams, it's about creating a clever organization. That's the big challenge for the 21st century. How do you build organizations that are beacons for talent? How do you make people say, "This is where I really need to be! This is where I can strut my stuff"?

We'll learn the answer to this question and more about building clever organizations next week.

  • Jeremy Dann

    Jeremy Dann is a Lecturer in Marketing at UCLA's Anderson School of Management and an innovation consultant and writer. He has been a contributor to several business and technology publications and is the founding editor of "Strategy & Innovation."