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The Marcus Perspective

Managing a Smart Employee: Who's Boss Around Here, Anyway?

By Bruce W. Marcus

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Among the many categories of management styles, there are two that are rarely seen without a measure of astigmatism. Both are extensions of the personality of the manager.

In one style, the manager has his eye on the objective of the business, and every decision is made solely in terms of how it affects the business objective.

In the other, the business is run as an extension of the manager's personality. It's territorial -- it's his business (or his department) and he has a right to run it any way he pleases. Virtually every decision he makes is intuitive, and clearly designed to satisfy his ego. Sometimes, as a management style, it works. But not often.

The real problem comes when a business has to hire a knowledge worker or a professional. This most often means hiring someone who ...

  • Has skills not within the realm of the manager's experience.
  • Has a different cultural context, with different work habits and different sets of criteria for measuring his or her own skills. And a personal ego to go with it.
  • May be smarter than both the manager and everybody else in the shop.

Obviously, a situation that can be potentially explosive. Or if it's well managed, a condition that can be enormously productive.

In professional firms, the problem is even more difficult, because the professions have decades of ingrained attitude about the superiority of the professional over the nonprofessional. Heaven help the non-accountant in an accounting firm or the non-lawyer in a law firm. At least, in many professional firms, the professionals are smart enough to recognize the value of the skills of the nonprofessional, and so time and attrition is shifting the balance away from elitism and toward respect for skills.

For the entrepreneurial firm in a nonprofessional context, or the department of a larger firm in which the major function is a narrow skill, the problem is not too different. How do you hire from an unfamiliar discipline? How do you manage that individual? And what do you do if the person you hired is smarter than you are?

For the manager who functions solely on intuition and ego, there may be no answer but to face the reality of it -- it is very expensive to misuse talented people. Recognize it, understand the costs and consequences, and if you still feel that your right to make mistakes is paramount to the business objectives, then go for it. Be prepared to be disappointed, to keep hiring and firing, to ultimately find a labor shortage for your firm. And be prepared to face the fact that the only employees you will keep are those who are a mirror image of yourself -- more concerned with their right to be masochistic than to achieve and accomplish.

There are a great many accounting and law firms, for example, that hire marketers badly, use them badly, fire them, and hire new ones. They keep repeating the same mistakes, and then decide that the problem is that marketing doesn't work, and they have track records to prove it.

For the other kinds of managers, there are clear ways to function successful with people from non-familiar disciplines, from the knowledge or art fields (and maybe they're the same thing), and most significantly, who are smarter than you are. And while every book on management exhorts managers to hire people who are smarter than the boss, without a way to do it, it's pure hyperbole.

Some thoughts...

Hire right in the first place. If you don't know how, find out, but don't hire on intuition or on half knowledge. Ask colleagues who have hired in those skills. Use a headhunter who specializes in those occupations. Read a book on the discipline itself -- there are many of those. Talk to the occupation's trade association. Learn how to read a resume of a person from a different discipline. Even before you look at the first resume -- even before you draw up the specs for the job and advertise it -- learn the meaning of the skills you think you need, and how they are defined and judged. Then, when you scope out the job in terms of your own needs, you'll have an understanding of how to judge whether the resume you ultimately look at is real or vapor. Managing other people always begins with hiring the right people in the first place.

No getting around it -- you've got to look at yourself. Can you face the fact that there are people who know more about some things than you do? That you have skills they don't have, but they have skills you don't have? Can you clearly delineate what it is you expect them to contribute to the business, and then leave them alone to responsibly make those contributions? And don't take the answer to these questions for granted. Fullly ponder these questions. You're going to have to live with the consequences.

Understand why you wanted them in the first place. What was the problem you wanted them to solve? What need did you have that you brought them in to fill? These are the foundation of the criteria for judging their performance. Measurement is more important for people with skills not traditional to your business than otherwise, simply because you may not have the experience to judge their work intuitively. But make sure they know the criteria as well as you do, and that you both agree on it. Mutual understanding works toward motivation. It saves time and money in the long run.

They may be smarter than you are. It may be because they're naturally smarter in all things, or it may be that they are in knowledge industries that demand more brain power than what you normally do or need. There are two ways to look at it....

  1. You'd better be personally secure and well adjusted. There are indeed people who are smarter than all of us, or better looking, or married to better looking spouses. But we are what we are, and mostly that's good enough.
  2. If you can't adjust to that, then keep your eye on the contribution their skills make to your well being. That's the real currency of it all.

This is assuming that they're decent people to begin with. Nobody likes an egocentric colleague, or a smart aleck, or people with any outrageous and incompatible personality traits. Nobody wants people who cause disruption in the workplace. Very smart people do have something special, but they sometimes have to be reminded that they need a place to use their intelligence, and you offer them that.

A real problem can be the specialist who comes from a culture with different work habits. This can drive you nuts, and cause dissension among others in the company. Instead of wringing your hands and pulling your hair, talk it out with the specialist and see if -- and how -- behavior can be modified without disturbing the creative juices. Live with what can't be changed if the contribution made by the individual offers greater value than does sticking to traditions. And call a meeting and explain it to everybody else. Don't let it fester ... don't contribute to dissension ... but make sure that everybody understand the same things you do.

Bringing someone into your work place with different disciplines, or somebody that's smarter than everybody else in the place (including you), is not without problems. But if really smart people can contribute to your bottom line, then learn to live with it. And don't lose sight of the exercise, which is to meet realistic business objectives.

Managing people from unfamiliar disciplines effectively, and working with very smart people successfully -- now that's really smart.


Bruce W. Marcus is a Connecticut-based consultant in marketing and strategic planning for professional firms, the editor of THE MARCUS LETTER ON PROFESSIONAL SERVICES MARKETING, (www.marcusletter.com) and the co-author of CLIENT AT THE CORE (John Wiley & Sons, 2004). His e-mail address is marcus@marcusletter.com. Copyright Bruce W. Marcus. All rights reserved.

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