Working Wounded: Managing Really Smart People

Dear WOUNDED: I've been managing a bunch of geniuses. Of course, I'd never say that to their faces. What are the keys to managing really smart people?

ANSWER: If you saw this in a TV show you would think it was totally implausible. A thief fled his attempted robbery of a Git-N-Go convenience store in Des Moines, Iowa, because the clerk noticed the gunman's thumb visible in his pocket. The clerk said he even had to argue with the guy that he didn't have a gun. "I know what a gun looks like," said clerk Terry Cook.

How many clerks would have just looked away and opened up the cash register when confronted by someone who appeared to have a gun? But Mr. Cook had the presence of mind to foil the robbery. Knowledgeable workers bring that same insight to a workplace. I've listed three Do's and one Don't for managing and retaining really smart employees. For more, check out "Thinking for a Living" by Thomas Davenport (Harvard Press, 2005).

DO Give them challenges. Most workers want to make work as easy as possible. They look for shortcuts and corners to cut. Knowledge workers usually have a different DNA -- they want to think, to solve problems to make things work better. So you've got to deal with them differently. Actually you should just start by just dealing with them. Unlike most managers who put their focus on the "squeaky wheels," the people who are screwing up and have precious little energy for the top performers. Don't make that mistake and invest in your best.

DO Limit the bureaucratic constraints. There is nothing that takes the wind out of a top performer quite like filling out forms in triplicate. Most of us accept that a certain amount of bureaucracy is necessary. Don't fall for that one. Ask yourself, would you rather have your smartest people focused on your best customers and biggest challenges or focused on outsmarting the personnel manual?

DO Look for smart people. In sports they call it the "best athlete available." That's where a team forgets about what positions on the team they are trying to fill and goes after the best athlete. Instead of trying to fill slots, look at each candidate's ability to make a unique contribution to your organization. I've been told by a number of executives, it's always easier to train someone to do a job, than to train them to be smart.

DON'T Be a dumb boss. This learning thing needs to be infectious. In other words, you can't manage smart people dumb. They won't tolerate it. So you've got to model all of the behaviors that you want to see in your people -- smart, engaged and creative. As a motivational speaker once said, "A dead battery can't charge a dead battery."

You've got to give a hand to Cook for using his brain to foil that robbery. Now it's your turn to better use the brains of your people.

Thought for the Week

"If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to treat everything as if it were a nail." -- Abraham Maslow

List of the Week

Does anyone know what time it is … When are we at our best at work?

  • 55 percent say in the morning (with 10 a.m. being the most mentioned time with 17 percent)
  • 20 percent in the evening
  • 15 percent in the afternoon
  • 6 percent late at night

From: Gallup

Bob Rosner is a best-selling author, speaker and internationally syndicated columnist. He'd love to hear your thoughts on this topic, especially if you have better ideas than he does. His books include "The Boss's Survival Guide" and "Gray Matters: The Work place Survival Guide." Send your questions or comments to him via: publishes a new Working Wounded column every Friday. This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.