Rob Goffee: Managing Clever People

Rob Goffee
Rob Goffee

Rob Goffee is a Professor of Organizational Behavior at the London Business School, and an expert on leadership, corporate culture, and innovation. He’s also the coauthor of Clever: Leading Your Smartest, Most Creative People and Why Should Anyone Be Led by You?

We asked Goffee how leaders should think about working with, retaining, and getting the most from clever people.

Interview Summary: Tips for Leading Clever People

  1. Explain and persuade
  2. Use your expertise, not the hierarchy
  3. Give them space and resources
  4. Tell them what to do, but not how
  5. Provide boundaries with simple rules
  6. Amplify their achievements
  7. Protect them from organizational politics
  8. Give them real-world challenges
  9. Talk straight
  10. Conduct and connect.

Adapted from Clever, by Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones

McLaughlin: How do you define ‘clever’ people?

Goffee: Clever people are the ones who create disproportionate amounts of value from the resources their organizations make available to them. There are, of course, many talented individuals who achieve extraordinary results on their own, outside any organization. But the book focuses on the highly talented people who need the resources of an organization to fulfill their potential.

We deliberately chose the word clever to provoke a reaction. We want people to think about what clever means, and we definitely wanted to avoid the usual labels—talent, knowledge worker, and so on.

McLaughlin: Does a leader need different approaches for managing people who are clever versus others?

Goffee: Yes. We looked at a wide variety of companies that are full of clever people (clevers), and we identified some rather special challenges involved in leading the people who are the highest sources of value for their organizations.

First, the desire to be independent and autonomous is often what motivates clever people. They also have a need for recognition, which may come from outside the organization—from professional peers or industry excellence awards, for instance. Plus they’re often obsessed with their particular area of expertise or cleverness.

When you consider those characteristics, it’s not surprising that clevers often have kind of a love/hate relationship with the organization. They recognize that they need the organization for its resources. But at the same time, they’d rather be independent.

In terms of managing people, organizations with lots of clevers show us that the world is changing. Ever since Taylorism and scientific management, we’ve thought about people in organizations in terms of getting maximum value from them. The modern language—motivation, engagement, and all that—sounds nicer but it’s still really about extraction. What can we get from this person now that we’ve got him or her?

Clevers reverse the challenge. You can assume that they’re highly motivated and typically love what they do. You can also assume that they’re already valuable in the labor market. The question is how do you make your organization of value to people who are themselves valuable?

McLaughlin: Does the current thinking on leadership help with that challenge?

Goffee: Too much of the conventional wisdom on leadership has been about the charismatic figure who is supposed to lead the charge up the hill. What clever people really want is a low-key orchestrator—someone who makes things possible but stays back at base camp. And, hopefully, the leader is able to make it clear why that hill is one worth climbing.

We’re now in the business of making organizations more attractive to valuable people, rather than ‘motivating’ them. And I think that shift requires more imagination and creativity from leaders than we see at present.

Leaders must figure out what will draw clever people to their organizations. Clevers like to be where other clever people are so that they can become cleverer, be challenged, and grow. That’s why all the best post-doctoral students in certain information disciplines want to work for Google. When they get there, they may find that everyone else is cleverer than they are.

McLaughlin: Do you think that the leaders of clever people must also be clever?

Goffee: Well, of course, in many professional services organizations, we want leaders to be ex-clevers. Consultants want to be led by somebody who knows what client practice is about. Likewise, the professors in a business school want the Dean to be an ex-professor, and so on.

Legitimacy can come from professional expertise, and that’s how some leaders establish their right to lead. There’s nothing wrong with that, although then comes the question do these ex-professionals have any idea what managing or leading is all about? Sometimes they don’t.

McLaughlin: Besides expertise, what other leadership attributes do clevers respond to?

Goffee: Leaders must develop alternative kinds of cleverness and deploy those to do the things the clevers don’t want to do themselves. Also, the role of the leader is to create the kind of discipline that clevers respect. For example, in accounting firms, it’s the integrity rule. In universities, it’s the tenure rule. If you keep the rules clear and simple, they work.

The basic problem remains that many clever people don’t want to be part of an organization and regard it as a bit of a distraction. You have to lead them in a clever way so they don’t notice it. The best sort of feedback you can get from a clever person is you didn’t interfere with me, or you weren’t on my radar screen. For that reason, managing them can be a thankless task.

McLaughlin: How do you integrate clever people with everybody else, particularly when it comes to forming teams?

Goffee:The golden rule to remember is that creativity increases with diversity. In almost every respect, diversity encourages innovation. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that too much diversity is difficult to manage. Put together a team made up of just clevers, especially those of a certain technical kind, and they’ll probably screw up. One researcher put together teams of people with high IQs and found that they were beaten by teams with lower IQ levels. So you have to be careful.

McLaughlin: What’s the most common mistake or oversight that you see in the management of clever people?

Goffee: Two big points come through from the work we did. What really switches clever people off is organizational politics. And some matrix-type organizations are often excessively political and bureaucratic.

The other thing that turns them off, which you’ll often see in fiercely competitive organizations, is excessive measurement. When managers measure everything, clevers find that rather stifling. If you give a clever person five objectives to meet this year, it reduces the possibility that the person will imagine a sixth possible goal during the course of the year.

McLaughlin: If you could give a manager just one piece of advice about leading clever people, what would it be?

Goffee: It’s back to the point about making the organization more valuable to them. It may be just a function of our times, but I think that clever people are attracted by a sense of higher purpose.

The great universities convince academics to go work there because they’re going to achieve breakthrough knowledge. Or go work for Google or Apple and you’ll change the world. So I think giving people a sense of higher moral purpose is increasingly important.

We have fallen out of love with organizations, and we can’t afford to do that because many forms of cleverness can only be developed and expressed inside organizations. Leaders need to create places where people want to be. I do think that’s in danger as a result of the many scandals and the loss of trust that we have witnessed in recent years.

McLaughlin: Thanks for your time.

Find out more about Rob Goffee at the London Business School.

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  1. says

    Clever people are also extremely prone to causing conflict at work. How should that be managed ? How do we give clever people autonomy and support and keep them “safe” from office politics and beaurocracy when they are bullying or harassing junior colleagues?

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