Find the Smartest People in Your Organization

Last Updated Jan 24, 2011 1:02 PM EST

Eric Schmidt, the soon-to-be-former CEO of Google, will not stay long in his new position as the company's "executive chairman," whatever that is. How do I know? He's too smart not to fly GOOGS for a new challenge.

Here is what I mean. In 1997, Schmidt left his position as CTO of Sun Microsystems to head networking giant Novell. What he didn't anticipate was that company was in dire trouble, and his first job would be leading it through a massive turnaround. Here is the incredibly smart thing he did. He went hunting for the smartest people in the company to make sure he could a.) keep them at Novell, b.) listen to their insights on what was wrong and what needed to be done.

How do you find the smartest people in an organization? As we all know, intelligence does not always correspond to current job title. And in an technology company such as Novell, the real brilliant guys and gals are engineers hidden many layers below the top.

Here's how Schmidt found them, as he told Harvard Business Review in 2001.

"I used a kind of algorithm to locate these people. A few days after I started, I was on the company shuttle from San Jose to Provo, where our engineering staff is centered, and I was sitting knee-to-knee with two engineers embroiled in a fascinating, heated argument. They were obviously two extremely bright people. I asked them to give me the names of the smartest people they knew in the company. They gave me a list, and over the next week I set up half-hour meetings with all of those other smart people, and I asked each of them to give me the names of the ten smartest people they knew. Because the smart people in an organization tend to know one another, I eventually found out who they were -- about 100 in all."

Someday you, as a company leader, is going to have to identify the brightest bulbs in your organization. These are the people you want to make sure you keep happy. These are the people with whom you want to keep counsel.

And now you know how to find them.

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(Photo by Flickr user timlewisnm, CC 2.0)
  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.