Leading Clever People

Last Updated Nov 7, 2007 3:31 PM EST


The Idea in Brief

Who most determines your
company's success? Clever people — employees
whose knowledge and skills enable them to produce
disproportionate value for your firm. Think the
pharmaceutical researcher who formulates a new drug, or
the programmer who creates a new piece of code. Their
single innovation may bankroll their entire organization
for a decade.

To make sure clever people do their best work at
your company, you must harness their talents. But that
isn't easy: Clever people don't want to be led. They
don't care about titles or promotions. And they're
easily bored.

What to do? Goffee and Jones suggest leading this
crew differently. Be a benevolent guardian, not a
traditional boss — by protecting them from complex rules
and politics. Create a safe environment where they can
experiment — and fail. Respect their expertise while
quietly demonstrating your own.

Lead your clever people the
right way, and you unleash their full
potential. They and your organization
win.

The Idea in Practice

To get the most from your clever people,
understand what makes them different. Unlike typical
employees, they:

  • Know their worth
  • Know how to get funding for pet projects
  • Expect instant access to higher-ups
  • Are plugged into extensive knowledge networks

  • Won't thank you for leading them well

To increase clever people's value — and prevent
attrition:

Reduce administrative distractions. Protect
clever people from rules and politics associated with
big-budget activities. For example, at a newspaper, the
editor lets an investigative reporter skip editorial
meetings. In a big consumer goods company, a leader
filters requests for information from the head office so
a consumer profiler can experiment with a new marketing
plan.

Maintain diversity of ideas. Avoid
centralized management structures that stifle innovative
thinking.

Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche encourages the clever
people in its three companies to pursue different projects as
they see fit. CEO Franz Humer tells them, "You do what you want
[at Genentech], and we will do what we want at Roche, and in
five years' time we will know. Sometimes you will be right and
sometimes we will be right."

Make it safe to fail. Effective leaders
know that for every successful product, many will fail.
Ideally, the successes will more than recover the costs
of the failures. By helping your clever people live with
their failures, you boost the chances of more
successes.

When three of Glaxo's high-tech antibiotics all failed in
the final stages of clinical trial, chairman Sir Richard Sykes
sent letters to the team leaders. He thanked them for their hard
work but also their decision to kill the drugs. He then
encouraged them to move on to the next challenge.

Let clever people pursue private efforts. These efforts may generate new business opportunities
for your firm.

Google lets employees spend one day a week on
Googlettes — their own start-up ideas. Result? Innovation at a
speed that puts large bureaucratic organizations to shame. For
instance, the Google-affiliated social networking Web site Orkut
began as a Googlette.

Demonstrate you're an expert in your own
right.
Show how your expertise complements or
supports your clever people's expertise. You'll
establish credibility with them.

A marketing director at a brewer knew little about
traditional brewing techniques. But he could quote details about
his company's sales performance. His clear mastery of the
business side gave him authority and credibility, so brewers
respected his product development opinions.


Copyright 2007 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.

Further Reading


Article

How to Kill Creativity

Harvard Business Review

May 2000

by Teresa M. Amabile


When it comes to managing creative people,
it's just as important to know what
not to do as what to do. Creativity
gets killed much more often than it gets supported.
The problem isn't that managers smother creativity
intentionally — it's that the business need for
coordination and control that can inadvertently
undermine employees' ability to put existing ideas
together in new and useful ways.

How to avoid stifling your people's creative
talents? Balance coordination and control with
creativity-nurturing practices. For example, help
employees broaden their expertise — their technical,
procedural, and intellectual knowledge. The broader
their expertise, the larger the intellectual space
they have to explore and solve problems. And fire up
their intrinsic motivation — their abiding interest in
certain activities or deep love of particular
challenges. Guidelines for stimulating intrinsic
motivation include matching people in diverse work
teams, telling them the company's goals but letting
them figure out how to achieve them, allocating
sufficient time and other resources to projects, and
letting creative people know that what they do
matters.