How To Lead Clever People
Your latest book is about ‘clever people’ and the challenges involved in leading them. How do you define clever?
Clever people are employees whose skills are not easily replicated and who add disproportionate value to their organizations. Often, these people are smarter than their bosses and most of them don’t really want to be ‘led’. That’s what they say, anyway; whether or not they mean it is another question. The ones we studied for our book actually needed organizations in order to express their skills and talents. For instance, if you’re a brilliant pharmaceutical researcher, you can’t produce the next great breakthrough drug on your own; you need the resources of a large pharma company and you need to work in a big, global team – typically for seven or eight years. Maybe then you’ll get to work on that breakthrough drug. We have found that many kinds of cleverness these days are organizationally dependent. My coauthor and I were interested in that sort of slightly edgy relationship that clever people have with those who employ them: they need organizations but they often don’t really want to be in them.
Describe the rise of what you have called ‘the clever economy’.
It is very closely related to the Knowledge Economy, which most people know about. Organizations are increasingly full of well-educated people with second or third degrees – MBAs, PhDs and so on. For our last book [Why Should Anyone Be Led by You?] we studied the BBC, Roche Pharma Company and WPP (the world’s largest marketing services agency.) What do these organizations have in common, you might ask? They’re stuffed full of clever people: the BBC is brimming with clever, creative broadcasters and media content producers and so on; Roche is full of clever pharmaceutical researchers; and WPP is full of creative and marketing geniuses. Frankly, the people most likely to ask the question posed by our last book are these clever, slightly edgy and sometimes difficult types.
Despite the fact that we predict a growing Knowledge Economy, the field of study in terms of leadership within cleverdominated organizations is very limited. There is plenty of research on leadership, and lots on the Knowledge Economy, but the two haven’t been brought together very well, and that’s why we wrote the book. The advanced industrial economies are unlikely to dig themselves out of their current hole by producing more motorcars: if we’re going to dig ourselves out it will be by getting cleverer at some of the clever stuFF that we do. A recent McKinsey study suggests that seven in ten new jobs generated in the United States in the last decade were ‘clever jobs’. We used to think that the future would be filled with McDonald’s-type jobs – low-skill service jobs – but that’s not what is happening at all. McKinsey defines ‘clever’ in terms of complex tasks, complex interfaces between tasks and lots of tested skill.
You touched on the fact that unlike artists or musicians – who can thrive on their own – clevers actually need organizations to thrive. Why is that?
Typically, they need to work with other clevers in order to generate new products and knowledge. In many cases they are actually motivated by working with others who may be even cleverer than they are. We talk about Google in the book. I went to visit some of the people there at the headquarters in California. Not surprisingly, they are hiring the brightest postdoctoral students and researchers in the world; that’s who gets to work at Google. And guess what the first thing they notice when they arrive is? ‘Everyone here is cleverer than me!’ This is motivating for them, because clevers thrive when they feel surrounded by people just the same or even cleverer. That’s one of the reasons they need organizations. There are also more pragmatic reasons: they also need resources and they need organizations as a platform to achieve recognition. I’m doing some work with Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessey (LVMH), the world’s largest luxury goods company. One of the things they point out is that when they’re looking at creative directors, they’re looking for people who are not just creatively brilliant but who want to be famous. Organizations can be a fantastic platform for public recognition. Think of the wildlife programs that the BBC generates, which are sold all over the world. They’re all made down in Bristol in the west of England. The BBC provides these people with a wonderful platform to achieve worldwide recognition. So there are many reasons why clevers need organizations, even though they sometimes feel uncomfortable in them.
You say that clever people also have “enormous destructive potential.” How so?
I suppose the most dramatic illustration is what recently happened to the global economy. Many of us are asking, ‘how could organizations that were so full of cleverness of one kind or another have gone so horribly wrong?’ Some of the financial service organizations, in particular, indicate the enormous destructive potential that exists within clever individuals. If you compared these firms to organizations that are producing, let’s say, routinized food commodities, they can be drifting in the wrong direction for years before they eventually get into trouble. But clever-dominated organizations are often as good as their last project, their last client engagement or their last hire. They succeed fast, but they can also go wrong fast, and that speed factor is one of the reasons why there needs to be a better understanding of how to lead these people.