Managing talent: Let your stars guide you to the summit

‘Clever’ is the new ‘talent’ – and if managers really want to make the most of their gifted employees they must standback and allow them to get on with it. Roger Trapp reports

No matter what it says in annual reports or other public statements, every business has some people who are more important to the organisation than others. In recent years, this group has come to be known as "the talent", as in the "war for talent" that organisations say they must wage in order to stay ahead of the opposition in an increasingly competitive "knowledge economy". Though well-meaning, this notion has become somewhat devalued as the term came to be used to cover any skill or set of skills that were required. Any sort of recruitment came to be regarded as talent spotting.

Business school academics and authors Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones could see the limitations of the approach. Which is why their new book is entitled simply Clever (Harvard Business Press, £19.99). The word "talent" had become "boring and tired", while another buzz phrase of recent times, "knowledge management" – for the process by which organisations seek to systemise the stuff their employees know – is just "boring", they say.

"Clever" is not without its own problems. Not least in the United States, where – as they point out in the introduction to their book – "clever carries connotations of being overly smart and difficult". But they prefer the English meaning – being skilled and talented – while accepting that "being smart usually comes with a few rough edges".

Another issue concerns what sort of people are deemed to be clever. Goffee and Jones admit that when they started they assumed they would be dealing with lawyers, investment bankers, "R&D wizards" and others generally seen to be the stars of their organisations. But they quickly came to realise that clever people are to be found in all sorts of organisations and in all sorts of places within them. As they point out, clever people can be school teachers, university administrators, museum curators or managers in small or large businesses. What unites them is their ability to create "huge amounts of value for their organisations".

Another thing that links many clever people is that they see themselves in terms of their work rather than their organisation – so that, for example, when asked what they do, they will initially say they are a lawyer or a surgeon rather than say who they work for. That said, though, most realise that they need the organisation as much as it needs them – for the resources and infrastructure, and also the credibility and sociability it provides.

As well as recognising this symbiotic relationship, managers seeking to gain the most from their "clevers" need to realise that they will have to exhibit a different style of leadership – and this may be particularly challenging for stereotypical entrepreneur leaders.

In a table setting out the dos and don'ts of leading clever people, Goffee and Jones put at the top of the don'ts: "Don't tell them what to do." This is significant – along with other no-nos, such as interfering, imposing hierarchy and bureaucracy and giving frequent feedback. The skill of the leader in these circumstances is largely about putting teams together – while recognising that a team full of clever people is not necessarily a recipe for success let alone harmony – and letting them get on with it. The challenge of the task is what motivates such people rather than the threat of what will happen to them if they get it wrong or fail to deliver.

The authors conclude: "Leaders can no longer be the sole driving force for progress. They are not the one who leads the charge up the mountain. Rather, they must identify the clever people with the potential to reach the summit, connect them with others, and help them get there.

"Once leadership was all about planting your flag on the summit and standing heroically for a photograph. Now, the leader is the one pacing anxiously at base camp waiting to hear good news."

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