All organizations have clever people who produce exceptional results. Talent managers and management in general spend a lot of time and effort identifying who these clever people are and where they are in the organization. The challenge is of course not only to know where they are but to ensure that the organization manages them well so that their talents are optimized.
To do so, the first step is to know what makes a clever person “tick” and what motivates him or her to perform. As with all other team members, knowing what makes a high performer tick is critical for the leader tasked with managing that resource and getting the most out of the skills that person brings to the organization.
So what are some of the key characteristics of a clever individual?
According to Bob Goffee and Gareth Jones of the London Business School, Here are some of their key traits:
1) Clever people have a high sense of their own worth; they have skills that are not easily reproduced in the organization and they know it.
2) Clever people ask difficult questions and are ready to challenge the status quo.
3) They know their way round the organization better than most and their roots run deeper.
4) They are not impressed by corporate hierarchy and don’t respect rank.
5) They expect instant access to decision makers and senior management.
6) They are well connected outside the organization.
7) Their passion is for what they do and not for who they work for.
8) Even if you lead them well, they won’t thank you.
In a nutshell, clever individuals can be difficult to handle and can demonstrate behaviors which may be perceived to be rough, hard-edged and abrasive.
So what can a talent manager do to manage such profiles and get the most out of these key contributors?
Here are some tips Bob Goffee and Gareth Jones propose:
1) Explain and persuade: you can’t tell clever people what to do. Telling them what to do undermines their self-esteem because they believe they shouldn’t have to be told what to do in the first place.
2) Use knowledge and expertise, not hierarchy as a management lever. Clever people don’t respond well to rank or hierarchy. They do respond to knowledge and expertise.
3) Don’t tell them how to do something, tell them what needs to be done. Clever people rise to a challenge and need to feel stretched. Give them an objective and a sense of direction but don’t tell them how to get there.
4) Provide limits. Clever people need space. They also need structure and discipline. Talent managers and leaders need to walk a fine line between ensuring the rules are followed and allowing the clever individuals the space to be creative. Impose the rules blindly and they will dry up. Leave them alone and they will get lost in the maze of their own ideas.
5) Allow them to question. Clever people need to feel they make a contribution and will readily challenge the status quo. Talent managers and leaders should recognize this and engage directly with them directly rather than avoid confrontation. Clever people will feel undervalued if they are not listened to and indeed, if they can’t express their own ideas even if these ideas seem to contradict the “party line”.
6) Give recognition and amplify achievements. Clever people are motivated by what they do and recognizing their achievements is vital. Moreover, they tend to value recognition from their peers and customers outside the organization most of all. So it’s important to ensure they get recognition from the right sources. As they work on tasks which may often be long-term or with difficult outcomes, you don’t necessarily need to give them frequent recognition but you do need to do it. Allowing them to represent the organization to customers is only one key way of such recognition.
7) Be tolerant of failure. Organizations can’t afford failure and invest heavily in training to reduce risk of failure. However, as clever people have already achieved a high level of expertise, they need to be stretched further and this may mean giving them high-risk projects with uncertain outcomes. Clever people respond well to difficult tasks but this means of course more exposure to failure. Organizations need to be able to provide them with such projects and provide them with more support to ensure that they learn as they go. And if they do make mistakes, talent managers need to ensure they learn from the experience without being burdened with the blame of coming up short.
8) Protect them from red tape. Clever people don’t like red tape and feel under-utilized when they have to dedicate time to mundane administrative tasks. Leading clever people means stepping in where necessary to clear the administrative obstacles that prevent the clever people from doing what they do best.
9) Talk straight. Clever people know when they are being dealt “corporate speak”. Don’t try to lead them up the garden path, tell it as it is. They will appreciate it all the more.
10) Provide real–world challenges with constraints. Leaders may be tempted to motivate team members by saying that everything is possible. Clever people don’t react well to this. They prefer to take on difficult challenges with uncertain outcomes. Tell them this and they will more than likely respond well to the challenge. They are at their most effective when they have real challenges to meet with real constraints.
11) Help them build a network. Some leaders may be tempted to hide away their key contributors, for fear of losing them. However, the real leadership task is to connect the clever people up together so that they set the standards collectively for the organization to follow.
12) Don’t hog the limelight. Some leaders feel threatened by clever individuals in their teams and take every opportunity to show who is boss. This will seriously impact the productivity of your clever people. Leaders of clever people need to get out of the way and allow them perform.
As a lot of research shows, clever people don’t necessarily want to manage others. They want to feel that their particular skills are being utilized to the full. The role of the leader of such individuals is therefore to recognize their particular needs and adapt his leadership style to meet their particular requirements. So leaders need to look beyond the abrasiveness and hard edge and adapt their leadership style to get the most out of these key resources. What leading clever people shows is that leaders need constantly to understand the key “motivational characteristics” of the people they lead and adapt their leadership styles accordingly.
More easily said than done but critical for all organizations. Even more critical for talent managers and for organizations alike is the need to look beyond the behaviors to understand the drivers of those behaviors. The temptation may be to categorize those clever individuals as not conforming to the behavioral standards espoused by the organization (respect for authority, team work, discipline, etc.) and therefore more trouble than they are worth. However, the “dark side” is part and parcel of their nature and needs to be managed correctly rather than stamped out; otherwise, the organization risks killing the goose that laid the golden egg.
Check out the article “Here come the clevers” by Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones in the April 2010 edition of Talent Management magazine.