While many small business entrepreneurs start out with a great idea and an indefatigable drive to take on the world, many also soon learn that they can’t go it alone. While there are certainly examples of highly successful 1-person shops, it typically takes a great team to build a successful business.
The ability to build and nurture the right team is often what separates the successful small business owner from the former small business owner. While the makeup of the team will vary based on a wide variety of parameters, the “clever” people—those who can take the “great idea” and use their unique creativity and knowledge to transform it into something truly amazing and truly profitable— are commonly the critical element. They are also notoriously difficult to attract, manage and retain.
A recent Harvard Business Review paper, Leading Clever People, delves into how to recruit and manage those difficult but invaluable team members. The paper defines the “clever” employees as those “whose knowledge and skills allow them to produce disproportionate value for your firm.” The discussion identifies several common traits shared by the “clever people” that makes them unlike other employees: they don’t want to be lead, they don’t care about titles or promotions, they typically know their worth, they know how to get what they want in an organization, they expect access to top management, they have no patience for company politics and red-tape, they have extensive outside networks in their fields, they’re easily bored, and they won’t thank a good leader for creating the work environment they want. So why bother with these prima donnas? Because say the authors, “Their single innovation may bankroll the entire organization for a decade.”
So the paper attempts to answer a key business question, “How do you manage people who don’t want to be led and may be smarter than you?” It provides a number of examples to support the conclusion that the best way to do it is to, “Be a benevolent guardian not a traditional boss by protecting them from complex rules and politics. Create a safe environment where they can experiment—and fail. Respect their expertise while quietly demonstrating your own.”
The paper’s examples and suggestions are chiefly based on large, well established corporate environments. But, many of the lessons apply to small start-up companies as well. Interestingly, many small business entrepreneurs share a number of traits with the “clever” and it is often these very traits— dislike of big-company constraints, a can-do attitude, and true knowledge of their own worth—that drive them to strike out on their own in the first place. Conversely, the very skills required to be a great business leader—the ability to manage, motivate, and inspire—are often visibly lacking in the “clever.”
As a small business owner, you need to determine where you fall on the spectrum. Are you a Bill Gates, a great example of a “clever” entrepreneur who succeeded by both hiring talented operations staff to run the business and nurturing “clever” people to drive innovation? Or are you a Jack Welch who succeeded at GE though extraordinary leadership that created a nurturing environment for the “clever” portion of his team as well as creating the structure in which the more operationally talented members could thrive? Chances are you’re somewhere in between.
Take a few minutes and read Leading Clever People. Then, think about how you can leverage its lessons to help your business and your employees thrive.