Sunday, May 06, 2007

Leading the seriously talented

In high tech, we can hope that through corporate reputation, good fortune, persistence, and good choices, we get to have people on our team that are really smart. Ideally, smarter than we are. Consider the alternative: a team of people who are not as smart as their leader?

The challenge with really smart people is they do not really want to be led. I have seen this. According to an article in the March 2007 HBR, they want their leader to be smart enough to appreciate and understand their contribution, but not to outshine them. This I agree with. The article also says that they feel they are part of an external community that transcends the current organization. In my experience I have not seen this (this may be because I have spent my career with engineers). Many really smart people unfortunately focus on what they are good at and don't network enough or desire to get better at what they aren't good at. In fact the article talks about rewarding clever people with perks such as getting out of assignments categorized as "organizational rain": those things which clever people view as non-value add but are necessary to support the organization. I'll go out on a limb here and say that I think that is really bad for teamwork, and coddles rather than develops the superstar. The article goes on to say that the leader should minimize the rain; but that is obvious irrespective of the organization's talent.

I'll add that I've met a couple of basic types of clever people: those for whom recognition is a reward and gives them energy, and those who really don't care about recognition. I think the former is more prevalent but have no data to support the claim. Both types, when functioning well, want to do well. It's just a matter of whether you can add energy with recognition. Recognition doesn't have to be sappy or public, it's far more important that the leader knows what they've accomplished and lets them know it. For those for whom that doesn't work... you are on your own. You may have to ferret out those who pretend they don't want recognition -- a defense mechanism against being manipulated. Overall, in such environments, you'll do a lot more damage failing to recognize accomplishments than the other way around.


Craig said...


I agree with your idea that people like recognition. I think a review of management theory substantiates that so well it’s not even discussed these days.

Here is some info on management theory in case you are interested.



Jeffrey Paul Anderson said...

Good point. And yet it occurs so infrequently :-) Perhaps because of the few who appear to not like it.