How do you manage people who don’t want to be led and may be smarter than you?

February 10, 2009

     By Duncan Green     

That’s the kicker question in a recent Harvard Business Review piece by Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones which certainly struck a chord with me (not that I’m admitting that the people I manage are smarter than me, obviously…) Here are a few choice quotes:

‘They are acutely aware of the salaries and bonuses attached to their work, they often treat promotions with indifference or even contempt. So don’t expect to lure or retain them with fancy job titles and new responsibilities. They will want to stay close to the “real work,” often to the detriment of relationships with the people they are supposed to be managing.’

‘Clever people feel they are part of an external professional community that renders the organizational chart meaningless.’

‘They need to be protected from what we call organizational “rain”—the rules and politics associated with any big-budget activity.’

Here’s their summary of ‘Seven Things You Need to Know About Clever People’

1. They know their worth. The tacit skills of clever people are closer to those of medieval guilds than to the standardized, codifiable, and communicable skills that characterized the Industrial Revolution. This means you can’t transfer the knowledge without the people.

2. They are organizationally savvy. Clever people will find the company context in which their interests will be most generously funded. If the funding dries up, they have a couple of options: They can move on to a place where resources are plentiful, or they can dig in and engage in elaborate politics to advance their pet projects.

3. They ignore corporate hierarchy. If you seek to motivate clever people with titles or promotions, you will probably be met with cold disdain. But don’t assume this means they don’t care about status; they can be very particular about it, and may insist on being called “doctor” or “professor.”

4. They expect instant access. If clever people don’t get access to the CEO, they may think the organization does not take their work seriously.

5. They are well connected. Clever people are usually plugged into highly developed knowledge networks; who they know is often as important as what they know. These networks both increase their value to the organization and make them more of a flight risk.

6. They have a low boredom threshold. In an era of employee mobility, if you don’t engage your clever people intellectually and inspire them with organizational purpose, they will walk out the door.

7. They won’t thank you. Even when you’re leading them well, clever people will be unwilling to recognize your leadership. Remember, these creative individuals feel that they don’t need to be led. Measure your success by your ability to remain on the fringes of their radar.

Ring any bells?

February 10, 2009
Duncan Green