The art of managing brilliant people

Smart staffers need careful handling, managers tell Mary Brandel

It's a management axiom that the smarter the employees are, the harder they are to manage. Employees with a high degree of left-brain intelligence, which is common among IT professionals, can be demanding, blind to the opinions of others, easily bored and bent on being "right", according to the people who manage them.

"Highly intelligent, highly technical people inhabit a subculture where knowledge is social status and power, and correctness is key," says Clinton Nixon, a senior developer at Viget Labs, a web design, development and consulting firm. This can lead to disgruntlement when inevitable disagreements occur, particularly between employee and boss.

So, while you may dream of supervising a brilliant staff, be careful what you wish for — or at least learn the best way to manage ultrasmart people. Here are seven tips from those in the know.

1. Manage results, not process

It's perfectly reasonable for bosses to tell you what to do, Nixon says, but when it comes to how the work gets done, a controlling atmosphere can be frustrating. He recalls working on a web shopping cart that needed new shipping options. Because the software wasn't very extensible, Nixon suggested rewriting the code, which he estimates would have taken two weeks.

Nixon was overruled. But because of all the bugs already in the software and others that were introduced because of the new variable, it took three weeks to finish the new feature. "We could have rewritten it in less time," he says.

Jack Hughes, CEO of TopCoder, which runs coding competitions, says "You can't take people who have a passion for something and then start to build walls around them".

A staff made up of those types of people does need structure, but that structure should be geared more around results than process, he says.

"You should format things in terms of the results you're looking for rather than proscribing the way in which they need to get those results," Hughes says.

2. Take a socratic approach

Extremely smart people rarely want to feel managed, but that doesn't mean they don't need to be, says Paul Glen, founder of the web community. To pull off this sleight of hand, he says, ask questions that will lead these employees to see your point of view. "If they don't want things dictated to them, you might have to manage them in a more Socratic form," he says.

This takes time and patience, especially when you think you already know the decision that ultimately needs to be made, says Edward Martinez, CIO at a US medical research centre, who has several PhDs on staff.

"You have to vet their ideas and let them come back with a recommendation that you reject or agree with," he says. "Even though you want to just make the decision, you need to give them an opportunity to be part of it."

3. Be open to learning new things

It would be wasteful not to let some of the ideas of a highly intelligent staff become reality. That's why Patrick Reagan, development director at Viget Labs, is open to exploring where experimentation may lead.

For instance, until two and a half years ago, the company had never done automated testing, but then a developer promoted the idea and things took off. "It's ingrained in our culture now," Reagan says. The company also moved from PHP for web development to Ruby on Rails in 2006 through the encouragement of a smart developer.

Moreover, if you're open to the ideas that emanate from brilliant staffers, you can learn a lot yourself, Nixon says. "When it comes to keeping up technically with smart people, you won't; you've got your own areas to cover," he says. "You can learn from them, though, and you should."

Nixon says managing someone who was a "razor-sharp genius" helped him become good at database design. "I listened to him and learned from him," he recalls.

"You have to be willing to be bested," Glen notes. However, be sure to make your star staffers justify their positions in a way that's reasoned and convincing. "You can't abdicate your managerial responsibilities," he says.

4. Don't pretend to know more than you do

The worst response to recognising that a direct report is smarter than you is to feel insecure and threatened, Glen says. "Some bosses feel compelled to make decisions about things that they're completely unqualified to make, so everyone ends up in total misery over it," he says.

It's better to accept that your role isn't to be the one with the best ideas, but rather to be the one who can determine which ideas are best, Glen says.

In fact, taking action on ideas is where you earn the respect of the highly intelligent, Martinez says. "Even if people aren't happy, they'll respect that you're standing behind your decision," he says. "Really intelligent people want to see action and results, however it gets done."

Tim Robbins, a developer who participates in coding competitions through TopCoder and manages other developers at a financial firm, says he backs off when a staff member clearly knows more than he does about a particular topic. "I might make suggestions based on my experience, but I expect him to take the lead," he says.

"I think it's important for every technical manager to realise he or she is a guide, not a chief," Nixon notes.

5. Find ways to stretch them

Mundanity is the bane of highly intelligent staffers, who like to be challenged — sometimes to a fault. "The tendency is to go for the shiny new thing and prioritise that over billable work," Reagan says. To offset that, at Moffitt, staffers can volunteer to join a special ideas team, which meets bi-monthly to explore major concerns or opportunities. This helps maintain momentum during slow periods, Martinez says. "If they see us move on one or two ideas, it really helps morale," he says.

Be careful not to underuse smart people, Martinez adds. One of his staffers was constantly bringing new ideas to the table, so he finally moved her into a position as director of special projects, where she could be a jack of all trades. "If I kept her in a standard role as an analyst, I wouldn't get a third of the stuff I'm getting from her now," Martinez says.

6. Don't be blinded by brilliance

Just because a person is smart doesn't mean she should run the show. Staying out of the way of smart people doesn't mean abdicating managerial authority, Martinez says. Instead, balance when to give them room to run with their own ideas, when to monitor them and when to intervene. After all, there are many types of intelligence. A brilliant coder, for instance, may not always see big-picture strategy.

Another common mistake is deferring on every decision to the ultra smart person in the group. Glen compares that to asking movie stars for their opinions on political issues. "To assume that someone is smart in every endeavor of life is akin to setting them up for failure," he says.

7. Maintain your humility

As a technical manager, you will inevitably work with people smarter than you. "If not, you're doing a terrible job of hiring," says Nixon, who has been a manager for two and a half of his 10 years in development.

Given that, try to start each day with a sense of humility. "You're lucky to have your team, and they are going to take you to your destination; you're not taking them there," he says.

Try not to feel threatened by not being the smartest one in the room. "I've seen so many managers -- especially those who came from the programming ranks -- feel threatened by their team," Nixon says. "Feeling threatened by someone else being good at their job is poisonous."

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