Brilliant Minds and Tough Challenges

Volume 7 Letter 4

A company we worked with had a brilliant scientist in their R&D sector. He developed a product that saved clients’ buckets of money and today the product sells close to one half billion dollars world wide. That’s the good news. The company promoted the rising star to manage his own small R&D department. It didn’t take long for things to unravel under his leadership and unfortunately last year this gifted individual left the company. This leaves us with some questions; do all brilliant people necessarily make good leaders and if not, should they be treated differently and how?

Bill Shockley was a brilliant scientist who worked at the famous Bell Laboratories after the Second World War. In 1947 he was credited with co- inventing the transistor which revolutionized the electronics industry and won him a Nobel Prize in 1956. (For those old enough to remember transistors replaced vacuum tubes and then microprocessors eventually replace transistors).

In 1955 Shockley left Bell Labs and started his own company called “Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory” in Mountain View California. The Nobel Prize and his stellar reputation as a research scientist attracted some bright young minds to his company. Shockley was obviously an intellectual phenomenon but unfortunately for the underlings at Shockley Semiconductor his ability to lead his company fell short of his cerebral brilliance. One story has Shockley asking his younger colleagues how he could better motivate them. Some replied that they would like to write research papers on their work. Taking their cue, Shockley wrote a paper that evening and the next day proudly brought the paper to his young workers stating that they could publish it under their own names.

A group, obviously unmoved by Shockley’s “generosity” and later to be known as the “traitorous eight”, left the company and started up Fairchild semiconductor. Fairchild would bring the silicon microchip to the computing world and spin off a slew of successful companies including Intel, Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) and National Semiconductor to name only a few. If there is a silver lining in the cloud for William Shockley it is that his scientific brilliance brought together some of the brightest minds in the high tech world. It was his poor leadership that sowed the seeds for what we know today as Silicon Valley.

Bright individuals as we’ve seen don’t necessarily make good managers. So how does one manage these bright individuals and keep them motivated? Their brilliance is often the fuel burning behind those few major products that float many successful companies. Treat them well and they can create billion dollar businesses. Treat them poorly and no amount of money will convince them to stay. Here are some pointers:

  • Hierarchy means little to them: Their perceived rudeness and lack of respect is often born from social awkwardness rather than contempt. Don’ react to it
  • They get fixated on solving a problem. Make sure the problem is properly defined at the outset.
  • They crave recognition and feed off it: Praise their work publicly
  • They are often moody: It is part of their creative process. Go with it
  • They are extremely hard workers: Don’t box them in nor expect regular hours – creativity has its own timetable and its rarely 8:00 to 5:00
  • They know they are valuable: Pay them well – they won’t fall into the normal pay categories.
  • They need money for their project: Find the funding or they will move
  • Outwardly they scorn titles: Secretly they cherish titles especially if they are unique: Special titles like “research fellow” or “professor emeritus” work well
  • They are well connected to other bright minds. It’s important to encourage their networks however recognize it leaves your company vulnerable to idea snatching – register your Intellectual Property!
  • They are easily bored -Keep them challenged with big problems
  • They don’t think they need a leader. The reality is they need someone to put structure to their teams as they can rarely do it themselves.

From this newsletter one might conclude that brilliant minds only show up in R&D labs but this is far from the reality. Bright minds are found in every discipline. However brilliance doesn’t necessarily mean leadership skills and the ones that can’t be promoted into leadership roles need to be managed differently. Brilliant minds can be tough challenges, but if done well – big pays offs.

For the full story and more tips on managing brilliant minds see:
” Leading Clever People ” , R.Goffee and G. Jones HBR March 2007 PP72 – 79

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