The Do’s and Don’ts of Leading Clever People

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When we talk about talent, shared values, and creativity, eventually we talk about exceptional employees. In his book ’The Clever’,  Dr. Gareth Jones, visiting Professor at London Business School, INSEAD, and Instituto de Empresa in Madrid explains how to navigate the art of leading clever people.

In this excerpt taken from an interview that we conducted with him, Gareth reveals what you must and must not do when leading those few exceptional high performers, the shining stars of your organization.

Who are the „Clevers”?

My co-worker, Rob Goffee often describes us as old sociologists. We keep rather detailed notebooks of our observations of organizations. About every 3 weeks we get together and share our observations and ask, „Have you noticed anything interesting?”. Quite often the answer is „No, we have not seen anything interesting.” But occasionally we say, „Yes, this is interesting”. On such an occasion I was working with PriceWaterhouseCoopers, which is an organization I admire. Rob was working with R&D scientists at Roche Pharmaceuticals. I said to Rob, „Listen, I think the message of Why Should Anyone Be Led By You [book co-written by Gareth Jones and Rob Goffee] does not quite work as well at PriceWaterhouseCoopers as it has done at some other organizations. „That is really interesting, because I feel exactly the same about Roche Pharmaceuticals” – said Rob.

Therefore we started to share observations about why these organizations were different. The conclusion we came to is that both of them are full of what we call „Clever” people. We define clever in this way: people who have the potential to add disproportionate amounts of value to their organization from the resources that the organization makes available to them.

Let me give you an example.

The book begins with the story of a man called Will Wright who worked for Electronic Arts. He is the guy who had developed the Sim City Franchise. He later developed a new game, Spore, which sort of revolutionized the world of electronic gaming. How much is that guy worth to the organization? Well, I think it is very hard to put a number on it. Let’s just say it is a very large number. Now, it is critical that he is well-led and it is equally critical that we encourage him to lead in a way which suits the way he sees the workplace. In fact, when Rob Goffee was interviewing Will Wright he kept talking about Electronic Arts. After about 40 minutes Will Wright said „I am sorry. Can you stop talking about Electronic Arts? It does not mean that much to me. Sim City means a lot to me. Spore means a lot to me.” Thus, in a sense, the organization merely becomes a vehicle for the expression of their talents.

This observation led us to develop the idea that there are „Clever” people in all organizations. „Clever” people are not defined by IQ or academic qualifications, but rather by having the capacity for value creation. And „Clever” people need to be led in a slightly different way. […]

„Because you need to listen to the silences!”

Here are some principles that I would recommend in regards to leading individuals who make a significant contribution to your organization:

  • Do not tell them how to do their work! Tell them what to do, but not how to do it!
  • Listen to them! One of the worst things that happen to HR department is when you suddenly discover that one of your stars is about to leave. Unfortunately, the moment you hear that they are about to leave is almost inevitably too late to do anything about it. And you think „Why did I not know before?”. Why did I not know that he or she had a problem with this particular project or their current manager or the lack of resources? Why did I not know? We use the phrase: „Because you need to listen to the silences!” It is built on a phrase from Thelonious Monk, the famous jazz pianist. He said: „Don’t listen to the notes I play, listen to the ones I don’t!”. So, listen to the silences!
  • Do connect them with other „Clever” people! Do allow them to connect with people even outside the organization! They will find them and you need to allow that.
  • Do allow them to get recognition from outside! I always remember when I was the HR Director at BBC. I met a few rather eminent broadcasters who would introduce themselves by giving their name and then say „2 BAFTA-s”. BAFTA is the big TV award in the UK. In other words: „That is all you need to know about me. I won 2 BAFTAS”. So, do allow them to get external recognition from other „Clever” people!
  • Make sure that they are in an environment in which their unique talent can be expressed! Can you imagine being at a pharmaceutical company with someone who has the capacity maybe to find a drug which could alleviate the symptoms of a migraine for example or find the cure for childhood leukemia? If you have such people than you really need to make sure they can express their unique talents.

There are organizations who do get it right. For example, 3M recognized the significance of giving people the potential to express themselves and their creativity. And so did Google and other companies.

We interviewed a fascinating woman who is anonymised in the book, but she was formerly head of IT for the CIA. It is an organization full of very „Clever” people. She explained that quite often she had to chase them out of the laboratories because they would have worked 20 hours a day if she did not. Thus it is crucial that you do not allow your „Clever” people to burn out.

10 Do’s and Don’ts for Leading Clever People

There are many other dos and don’ts when it comes to consciously managing your shining stars, and here are the top 10 lessons you need to master in order to maximalize their value to your organization:

  1. Do tell them what, but don’t tell them how! We got a nice story in the book when a guy with vast experience of leading „Clever” people says: „I want you to design a computer system that a 100,000 people could log onto simultaneously”. They say „it is impossible”. So he says: „OK, fine”. And then he comes back about a day later and he says: „Oh, I had some ideas how you could do it” and he shows some not very good ideas. The fact that he had any ideas at all is immediately a challenge to them. So, he gives them the what but not the how.
  2. Do give people time! Do not interfere! One of our respondents said that some organizations keep pulling up the plants to see if the roots are ok. But that is not good.
  3. Here is a complicated notion. Do provide boundaries! You see, it is not just about giving people freedom. It is about agreeing on simple rules. The rules could be around ethics, cost, quality. We want simple rules we all agree about rather than creating bureaucracy.
  4. Here is a provocative one which some of my HR colleagues balk at. Do encourage failure and maximise learning! In other words, in „Clever” organizations you will have lots of things that do not work. Not every drug that is in early stages of development sees the market place. In fact, a tiny minority of them do. Not every new fast movie consume good works. Diageo’s story of Smirnoff Ice is a good example. They had some market research which showed that young people like drinking sweet, alcoholic drinks. They started – where I think most people would start – mixing rum and Coca-Cola, but they failed. However, they went on until the 11th attempt. They mixed vodka with lemonade and they got Smirnoff Ice which more or less redefined the category alcopops. So, you are definitely going to have failures. When I was in the music business my old boss used to say to me: „I never fire people for signing bad artists because if you do not sign bad artist you will never sign great ones.” That is a very good thought.
  5. Protect them from the rain! Do not expose them to politics!
  6. Talk straight to them, tell them like it is!
  7. Do not deceive them! They are deeply suspicious of the organization.
  8. Speak! Give real world challenges with constraints! Do not build an ivory tower! I remember about 20 years ago we were moving the R&D facility 200 miles away from the factory and putting a stand of trees between it and the road. We said „Let’s leave them alone! Do not worry! They will have some great ideas!” Well, maybe they will, maybe they will not. But that is not the way you build a „Clever” organization.
  9. Do try and build „Clever” connections! Do not just rely on one star! It is all about building „Clever” teams.
  10. Do not take all the credit as the leader! In fact, the best they will say about you if you do not get in the way too much.

Leadership and Succession at the HR CongressThe Leadership and Succession module at the HR Congress will explore the challenges of training “digital leaders”, the issue of not focusing enough on mid-level management succession, and explain how mindfulness is the perfect tool for the overworked. With hierarchies beginning to disappear in the workplace and teams taking over the organizational structure, leadership roles and responsibilities are transforming and expanding as well. In the age of digital transformation companies need to accelerate people into leadership earlier in their careers with enhanced, digitally aligned leadership practices such as coaching, mentoring and training. Spotting leadership talent is just one part of the job, the key to producing the leaders we need now and in the future is Succession Management.

Our Team is proud to have Dr. Gareth Jones as Keynote Speaker and Masterclass Leader at the HR Congress, November 28-29, in Brussels.

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