Managing Clever People - at times quite a task - but one that must be confronted!


This article was re-printed in full after we spotted it in the regular newsletter produced by Steve Simpson.

Steve is a Brisbane (Australia) based consultant author and speaker who travels the world helping organisations profit from an improved culture. Steve gave us his permission to re-print it here. Thanks Steve. For more details visit

The March 2007 edition of the Harvard Business Review includes an article titled ‘Leading Clever People”, Written by Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones….

Authors Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones interviewed more than 100 leaders and their clever people at leading organisations including PricewaterhouseCoopers, KPMG, the BBC and Roche. Their goal was to uncover how to lead clever people. Their work resulted in a number of findings, including seven things we all need to know about clever people:

  • They know their worth.
  • They are organisationally savvy – if funding is threatened, they will move on or they will play politics.
  • They ignore corporate hierarchy – and they don’t care about a person’s ‘status’.
  • They expect instant access – including access to the CEO.
  • They are well connected – other people know them, which makes them more liable to be approached.
  • They have a low boredom threshold.
  • They won’t thank you – clever people feel they don’t need to be led and wont thank you even if you do the job well!

So, given these unique characteristics, how are clever people to be managed?

First, leaders need to be crystal clear on one fact – attracting talent is only part of the equation – in a context world-wide where skills shortages are on the rise, clever people increasingly will see themselves as a sellable commodity. Organisations that focus entirely on attracting talent will suffer badly. Clever people are not waiting around – they expect you to know and appreciate their value.

Clever people are scornful of the language of hierarchy. While being aware of salaries and bonuses, the ‘promise’ of promotion is often viewed with indifference.

David Gardner, COO of worldwide studios for electronic arts (EA), makers of interactive entertainment software says, “If I look at our failures, they have been when there were too many rah-rahs and not enough content in our dealings with our people. People are not fooled. So when there are issues or things that need to be worked out, strategy forward dialogue is important, out of respect for their intellectual capabilities”.

Clever people need to be protected from what Goffee and Jones call ‘organisational rain’ – the rules and politics associated with any big budget activity.

However, minimising the ‘rain’ is not enough. It’s also important to ensure rules and norms are simple and universally accepted.

Herb Kelleher, former CEO of Southwest Airlines recognised the need for this when he threw the company’s rule book out the window. When Greg Dyke was the Director General of the BBC, he discovered a huge number of bureaucratic rules that were often contradictory. He launched a programme called ‘cut the crap’ which proved to engage many of the more clever people at the BBC!

Companies who rely on clever people for their success ensure that they do not place all their bets on one horse. Nor are they afraid of failure.

Richard Sykes was to become the chairman of GlaxoSmithKline. Prior to taking on this role, he sent letter of congratulations to team leaders, thanking them for their hard work and for killing drugs – three antibiotics that had all failed in the final stages of clinical trial.

Finally, while clever people need to be recognised as special and as being independent thinkers, leaders need to ensure clever people recognise their interdependence. They must understand that cleverness is not a ticket for them to do everything. Leaders need to show clever people that they or others have the competence to help them in areas where they may not be quite so clever.