Clever: Leading Your Smartest, Most Creative People

Nurturing gifted employees will benefit workers and employers - it makes sense to David Orford

January 28, 2010

This is a fascinating book, written by two highly acclaimed academics whose previous work received one of the 2007 McKinsey Awards from the Harvard Business Review. But I must confess to feeling slightly sceptical about its target readership, in that the majority of us probably never get the opportunity to "manage" the "clever" people who are the focus of the book. Consequently, I was unsure of the appeal of the work to the majority of Times Higher Education readers. All my concerns soon disappeared, however, as I worked my way through 170 pages of insightful and accessible discussion.

What is immediately apparent is that many of the organisations referred to by the authors could easily be recast as higher education institutions (indeed, several of the case studies actually are), and that many of the "clevers" could be the resident academics. This is not to say that all academics are "clevers", but rather that a disproportionate number of them may think they are, and so will need careful management if we are to maximise their potential. This book offers an insight into managing these people, and many others, within a wide variety of sectors.

Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones are quick to make the point that organisations often inhibit creativity, and that there should be a switch of emphasis in the relationship between the organisation and its employees. Instead of making employees valuable to the organisation, we should be ensuring that we make the organisation valuable to its "clever" employees. In framing their argument, the authors employ contributions and case studies from a wide range of respected managers and innovators, including Cisco, Google, McLaren and PricewaterhouseCoopers. They agree that organisations should offer the "clevers" a context in which they can "achieve their potential and meet their personal aspirations". It is acknowledged that the "clevers" don't want to be led, but that they need leadership to achieve their potential. This is not to say that the "clevers" create their own rules, but rather that they need boundaries in order to focus their efforts. Yet boundaries must be carefully defined and managed. We must, say the authors, "give people the room to succeed".

A rethinking of the role of leader provides another interesting dimension to the book. Leaders are seen as having demonstrable expertise/credibility, but they must still be prepared to take a back seat in developments. They are seen as staying "at base camp" while the "clevers" within their organisation "strive for the summit". The authors acknowledge that this may mean "huge personal sacrifice and humility" on behalf of the leader. The leader will have faith in the "clevers", while acknowledging that "clever teams regularly screw up". Conversely, if they do succeed, they can "create disproportionate amounts of wealth from the resources ... made available to them". It is very much a matter of faith and confidence.

The authors' analysis of these organisations provides insight into the thoughts of some of the world's most successful and respected managers. They discuss characteristics that can promote or inhibit creativity, with production and service organisations considered separately. The book's final section, "The future of clever organisations", considers the nature of evolving organisations and the people who work for them. Here, a core theme is the way that the organisation encourages and communicates with its employees - namely giving people the space and resources to "develop and pursue their ideas". The authors conclude by noting that "giving clever people the licence, the freedom, the environment, the culture, the necessary discipline to express and develop their talent is success in itself".

I would agree that this is a laudable aim for every manager and commend this book to you as a first step in establishing how it can be done.

Clever: Leading Your Smartest, Most Creative People

By Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones

Harvard Business Press

208pp, £19.99

ISBN 9781422122969

Published 1 September 2009

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