Here's What You Need to Avoid When Managing "Clever" Employees

Last Updated Mar 30, 2010 8:15 PM EDT

Gareth Jones is a Fellow of the Centre for Management Development at London Business School and a visiting professor at INSEAD. In their recent book, Clever, he and co-author Rob Goffee help us understand how "clever" people provide disproportionate amounts of value to organizations and society. Last week, we discussed some of the methods managers can use to channel the talents of these clever individuals. We continue our conversation on that topic this week.

BNET: The relationships managers have with extremely "clever" individuals can be very tense. What are the root causes of that?

Jones: It's because they say they don't want to be led and they don't want to be leaders. They want to be left alone and indulged. And that's what we used to do with them. Twenty five years ago, we would build the R&D facility 250 miles away from the factory, plants a stand of trees between the building and the road and pour lots of money into the facility in the hope we would get great ideas out the other end. In our view, that doesn't work.

There are two ingredients for leading clever people. One is affinity; you need to be able to see the world through their eyes. The other ingredient is discipline; this means providing them tough real world challenges with constraints.

BNET: What are some things people should take special care to avoid when they seek to motivate the "clevers" within their organizations?

Jones: Don't allow them to burn out, because they tend to be rather driven. We interviewed an extremely interesting woman (whose name is disguised in the book) who was the head of information technology for the CIA. One of the things she said she did most effectively was sending people home because they might have just put in 18 hours on a particularly demanding problem. She would chase them out of the laboratory.

Give recognition, but don't give constant feedback. Don't keep digging under the plant to see if the roots have taken. That's a rather difficult one, by the way, because traditional management training says you should be giving feedback consistently. In a way, they get their feedback from the task that they are engaged in. You can probably think about this in the context of your academic colleagues, Jeremy, not all of whom are clever, but some of them are.

BNET: So, what are the personality traits of the people who are best fit to be teamed up with truly clever individuals? What are the qualities that will make someone a great leader and manager in this kind of situation?

Jones: They need to be relatively humble. They need to conduct and connect. At one time, people thought of the leader as the type of person who would drive the flag into the top of the mountain when the team conquers it. Now, I think the leader is more likely to be in base camp guiding people to the top. You have to have pretty low personal ego needs. You will make your clever employees pretty miserable if every time they have a breakthrough, you take the credit.

In the book, we talk about being accessible, because every time clever people have a concept they think it's the best idea in the world. I used to say when I was in the music business that every A&R man thought he had just signed the next Bob Marley, and 999 times out of a thousand, they were wrong. But you wanted them to believe they were correct, because if they don't believe they are correct, the artist will never become the next Bob Marley. In the music industry at that time, that capacity to predict the next breaking star was what determined your profitability.

BNET: You must have run across some interesting clevers in the music industry...
Jones: There was a legendary tale in the music industry about a famous executive who turned down signing the Beatles and the Kinks. This makes him look like kind of a disaster. But guess who he did sign: The Rolling Stones. If you're that spectacularly right once, that's enough. Take the software business: there are people who can write bits of code that bankroll a company for 10 years. The drug Zantac transformed Glaxo from being basically a baby food company to being arguably the most successful pharmaceutical company in the world. This is what we mean by clever people delivering disproportionate amounts of value.

We conclude our discussion 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."