Contextualizing Cleverness

In a new book entitled "Clever: Leading Your Smartest, Most Creative People," authors Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones identify the characteristics of clever people.

Monday, March 1, 2010
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This article accompanies Best HR Ideas for 2010.

"Cleverness must always be contextualized," the two write. "But our research suggests that there are a number of important attributes of clever people."

Below are nine common characteristics they've identified in a chapter entitled "Understanding Clever People." The following excerpt has been edited.

1. Their cleverness is central to their identity. For clever people, what they do is not some last-minute career choice; it is who they are, rooted deep in their being. Louise Makin is CEO of the pharmaceutical company BTG plc; she has an MBA, an MA in natural sciences, and a PhD in metallurgy from Cambridge University. "The thing about experts is, they are their work," she notes.


Listen to how people introduce themselves. Clever people will say that they're physicists, geneticists, film producers, software designers, and so on. They do not say, "I work for Clever Inc." They are defined by their passion, not their organization ...

2. Their skills are not easily replicated. If they were, then they would not be the scarce resource they are. Once upon a time, competitive advantage came because your product was slightly better or produced more cheaply. Now it often comes through the collective efforts of the people in your organization. The good thing about people -- and the teams they create -- is that they are (as yet) impossible to copy.


You can practice twelve hours a day, but you will not become an identical soccer player to David Beckham. Nor will you create a great team just by buying the best individual players. This was expensively demonstrated by the Spanish soccer team Real Madrid, which invested many millions of euros in a team of galacticos, superstar players including Zinadine Zidane, Roberto Carlos, Ronaldo, Raul, and David Beckham. The sum of the glittering parts was disappointing.


The knowledge of clever people is tacit. It is embedded in them. If it were possible to capture their knowledge within the organizational fabric, then all that would be required would be better knowledge management systems. It isn't. (In fact, as alluded to by Kamlesh Pande, one of the great disappointments of knowledge management initiatives to date is their failure to capture clever knowledge.) For the people we are talking about, a great deal of their cleverness resides not in what they know but who they know and how they know it ...


3. They know their worth. Kamlesh Pande is now responsible for a group of around forty R&D people. The majority are postgraduates in engineering. Some are engineering graduates, and a smaller number have doctorates in engineering.

Pande recounted a recent experience when he had interviewed a candidate for a job. The job applicant was from the same institute that he himself had graduated from and was clearly exceptionally talented. Pande immediately offered him the salary that he wanted -- around 25 percent higher than he would normally have offered -- and invited him to join the company when he finished his PhD. The candidate agreed to join -- but on one condition. He insisted on having a look at his workplace to see how well equipped the lab was and meeting at least four or five people he was going to work with. Pande agreed and celebrated the fact that India is now producing people with such high expectations and standards.

Indeed, the tacit skills of clever people are closer to the craft skills of the medieval period than they are to the codifiable and communicable skills that characterized the Industrial Revolution. This means you can't transfer the knowledge without having the people. Clever people know the value of this.

While some of the clever people we interviewed were reticent and unsure of the dynamics of their relationships with their leaders, many more expressed a sureness, a confidence in their own skills and their role in the organization ...

4. They ask difficult questions. "My clearest indication that I have somebody who is really talented is that they will come into my office and argue with me on some issue where they are convinced they're right. The fact that they are passionate enough to sit and argue with me is a huge indicator," says Will Wright. "It doesn't matter how talented a designer is, if they can't come and sell me on their ideas, it's wasted. I have others who come in and argue, and they are always wrong! So, it's not necessarily a proof that they are a great design talent, but I think it is a prerequisite."

Knowing your worth means that you are more willing to challenge and question. Clever people are often incessant interrogators of those who hope to lead them. But Will Wright's point is also deceptive. The fact that they are prepared to argue with someone of his stature is significant. It is a sign of respect for him as a leader. Not every leader can rely on retaining that respect. But if you have it, you should not expect an easy ride from the clevers ...


5. They are organizationally savvy. Says Will Wright, "In my experience clever people understand organizational dynamics, politics, etcetera. You do not want to entirely isolate them from the political pressures, the disciplinary dynamics going on around them. If you are going to protect them, you want them to be aware of that. We're giving you some space here; we are holding back the managers, and it's costing you brownie points; and if you do something really cool, you earn brownie points. They very much understand the balance of payment, and they are happy thinking in those terms. In my experience they are very open to understanding that as a marketplace."

6. They are not impressed by corporate hierarchy (and they don't want to be led). The demands of the clever economy pose a leadership conundrum. We describe it as a conundrum for a simple reason: if there is one defining characteristic of clever people, it is that they claim they do not want to be led -- and they are absolutely certain that they don't want to be managed ...

They have an undisguised disdain for organizational hierarchy as captured in the organizational chart.

Their indifference to organizational hierarchy has important implications for leading them. "You are only as good as your last idea," summarizes Christina Kite of the technology company Cisco Systems. "It's all about influencing through skill and knowledge, not through title, especially in engineering. They don't give a hoot what title you have. You've got to influence them through your skill and your knowledge, and your brand, because they'll ask around. At the end of the day, they're a show-me-don't-tell-me group."

Louise Makin agrees. "You have to lead as you. You don't lead as the CEO," she cautions ...

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7. They expect instant access. The ideas of clever people are so all consuming to them that they cannot understand why they may not be to their leaders as well. If they don't get access to the chief executive, they will assume that the organization does not take their work seriously.

"Their ideas are so present to them now that they cannot understand why they may not be present to you -- now!" summarizes Laura Tyson, reflecting on her experience as chief economic adviser in President Clinton's first administration and latterly as dean of London Business School. So perhaps it's not surprising that many of WPP's clever people perceive Martin Sorrell's legendary speed of response to e-mails (within a few minutes most of the time) as one of the most distinctive and valued aspects of his leadership style. The challenge for leaders is to balance open access with what might be regarded as interference.

The trouble for you, as the leader, is that if you're not there when the clevers come calling, don't expect them to wait patiently in line; clever people have a low boredom threshold. Very low.

8. They want to be connected to other clever people. We have already made the point that clever knowledge cannot easily be downloaded to the organization. Indeed, it is almost always inseparable from the clever people themselves. But here is that paradox again. Just as organizations need clever people to be effective, so, too, do clever people need other clever people -- and organizations -- to achieve their full potential.


In part, this has to do with access to resources. But that is not the whole story. It also has to do with the fact that clever people cannot function in an intellectual vacuum. Typically, they possess only a part of the clever solution -- an important part, perhaps, but one that also requires the input of other clevers to come to life ...


9. They won't thank you. "There's a part of me, a slightly dark part of me, that thinks these clever people wouldn't recognize management or leadership if you hit them in the face with it," one slightly forlorn leader confided. This may be true, but it also gets to the heart of the challenge. Clever people might retort that leaders wouldn't easily recognize great science, a world-changing computer program, or even an innovative new coffee machine if it was thrust before them.

Others we spoke to were more philosophical. One interviewee put it like this: "If clever people resist leadership, it is the fault of the leader rather than the clever person. Furthermore, if clever people resist management, almost invariably most others in the organization have similar concerns."

Even when you're leading them well, clever people may be unwilling to recognize your leadership. In the next chapter, we'll look at what effective leadership involves. But remember, these clever individuals will often say that they don't need to be led. Measure your success by your ability to remain on the fringes of their radar. You know you're a success when you hear them say you're not getting in the way too much.

Robert Goffee is professor of organizational behavior at the London Business School and Gareth Jones is a fellow of the Centre of Management Development at the London Business School in Madrid. They are past winners of the prestigious McKinsey Award for the best article in the Harvard Business Review, entitled "Why Should Anyone Be Led by You?"

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Press. Excerpt from Clever: Leading Your Smartest, Most Creative People.  Copyright 2009 Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones.  All rights reserved.

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