The biggest challenge of modern managers – managing smart people

photo by GIHE

The last few weeks I have been interviewing for a job. I went to different firms and met different interviewers. As I am interviewing for a position in the middle of an organization, one that will demand the handling of a team, the discussion included questions around teamwork, leadership and management. Those are all things that I love talking about, as those of you who have been following this blog know very well. However, the interviews themselves, and my mental preparation for them, made me think about some of my beliefs, in an attempt to articulate them better.

I wrote here many times that I believe that a manager’s main challenge is helping his team excel, each person in a different way. I talked about the fact that I believe that the best way to manage is by outcome management and by resisting the temptation to give answers. I also talked about the humility that must be part of a manager’s attitude, and off course about MBWA.

But the more I think about it, the biggest challenge managers in modern organizations face today, one that encompasses most of the above challenges is that of managing smart people. Because in today’s environment a manager is not necessarily the best professional. These days are over. He no longer has the ultimate knowledge and the ability to understand all issues of the business, department , division or sometimes, even the team. The people he works with, most of the times know more about specific things then he does and have skills that he doesn’t.  And they are smart. Not only smart in terms of pure intelligence (IQ)  but smart in terms of emotional intelligence (EQ) and social intelligence (SQ).

Malcolm Gladwell, one of my favorite authors gave an amazing speech at the New Yorker conference labeled: “Genius: 2012”. In it, he  compares Michael Ventris, the decipherer of Linear B, with Andrew Wiles, the solver of Fermat’s Last Theorem and concludes:

“Modern problems require persistence more than they require genius and we ought to value quantity over quality when it comes to intelligence”.

One of his main claims in the speech is that 13 smart guys are better than one genius in dealing with modern problems. And this is the essence of what a manager needs to do. He needs to coordinate 13 smart guys to solve modern day problems. And those of you who worked with smart people, know how big a challenge it is.

The more our society advances the smarter people will get. They will get more specialized. Most problems today can’t be covered by one individual so each team members must know only part of the problem very well. And the manager needs to coordinate all of that. He needs to make sure that each team member has the ability to excel with his specific knowledge and skills; has to ability to use his strength for the good of the team; to create a synergy from the separate members of the team.

What do you think the biggest challenge of modern managers is?


10 Responses to “The biggest challenge of modern managers – managing smart people”

  1. Amit Chandna Says:

    I agree completely Elad and have experienced that couple of times. As a manager/leader it becomes imperative to understand that you are a facilitator and will not always be the one to provide solutions or show the right way. You will obviously not have the correct answer always, that doesn’t make you incompetent (if you are pretty smart yourself its often tough to accept that) Probably what makes you incompetent is not fostering an environment where every one can propose solutions in a risk free environment.

    However sometimes this challenge becomes even more intense when some really smart people have a bad attitude or are bad team players , to bring them on the same page to work towards a common goal following your direction takes away some energy. Have you faced this situation? What are your thoughts about it?

  2. sherfelad Says:

    Hey Amit,
    Thanks for your comment. As always, insightful.
    Yes, I agree that it is an even bigger challenge when some of these smart people are also negative. I think that many times part of the negativity is unintentional or is a product of bad communication to begin with. the first thing to do is to put a mirror in front of these people, showing them exactly what their negativity is doing to the team. I think most smart people will thrive on open communication and trust and there is not real substitute for that. You also need to make sure that these people are really in their strength area and are not frustrated because they are being pigeon holed in some way. Lastly, I do believe that some people are negative and can’t help it. We should try to get as far away as we can from these people… sometimes letting somebody go is the best for him, the team and you.
    Any thoughts on that?

  3. Amit Chandna Says:

    This throws an additional challenge which managers face: difficult conversations and how to deal with them positively, But you are right open communication is a key.

    A couple of examples where I had some challenges:

    1) In some projects there is work which is not very exciting, typically its challenging to retain smart people in those projects.

    2) Sometimes the employees are disgruntled and not generally negative: I had one team member who thought he deserved to be in my position and that was an interesting dynamic. you are torn between letting the employee go and the problem you want to solve because “you obviously know how to manage people”

    3) In some cases people bring skills which are extremely valuable, but create a bad environment for the team. This is probably not as tough as you can develop an exit plan over time. but for short projects it becomes an extra issue to deal with..

  4. Grant Says:

    I agree with you guys about managing smart people and that their will always be smarter people than you. In my experience there are two reasons for disgruntled team members: 50’s management style and inflated egos. Old school management style often is directive and that’s not good enough anymore. People are smart and they want to know why and be part of the decision making. The second reason is some people are oblivious to other people strengths and have a false sense of their superiority.

  5. sherfelad Says:

    Thanks Grant,
    That is so true. I really like your last sentence: “some people are oblivious to other people strengths and have a false sense of their superiority”. As I wrote in the post that is why I think part of the challenge is humility. Recognizing that there are other ways than your way for doing things, and that different does not necessarily mean wrong!

  6. Jonathan Blackwell Says:

    Hey Elad,

    I enjoyed breaking the fast with you last night. My experience with managing teams has shown me that people have to be very comfortable around me in order to provide their best input. I can pull from them, but like Grant mentioned, the 50’s push style doesn’t work anymore.

    Regarding positive attitudes like Amit mentions, I tend to be the optimist in the group. Tolerating a certain level of negativity is important. By allowing people to be honest with their opinions you avoid the damage of group think. Too much negative energy, though, becomes counterproductive and creates an opportunity to let the weakest link go.

    It’s then a matter of setting clear metrics on tolerance levels, warning systems, and an emphasis on making the work more manageable for everyone. I’m eager to get back into the workplace!


  7. JimmyBean Says:

    I don’t know If I said it already but …Hey good stuff…keep up the good work! 🙂 I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say I’m glad I found your blog. Thanks,)

    A definite great read..Jim Bean

  8. sherfelad Says:

    Thanks Jonathan and JimmyBean for your comments. Hope you continue to enjoy the content on the blog and hope to see more of your thoughts in the comments in the future!

  9. RobD Says:

    Your blog is so informative … ..I just bookmarked you….keep up the good work!!!! 🙂

  10. 2010 in review at The Comparative Advantage « The Comparative Advantage Says:

    […] The biggest challenge of modern managers – managing smart people September 2009 9 comments 3 […]

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