How to Manage Brilliant People

Every manager wants an ultra­smart staff. In IT, the good and bad news is that you're likely to get one.

It's a management axiom that the smarter the employees are, the harder they are to manage. Employees with a high degree of left-brain intelligence, which is common among IT professionals, can be demanding, blind to the opinions of others, easily bored and bent on being "right," according to the people who manage them.

"Highly intelligent, highly technical people inhabit a subculture where knowledge is social status and power, and correctness is key," says Clinton Nixon, a senior developer at Viget Labs LLC, a Web design, development and consulting firm in Falls Church, Va. This can lead to disgruntlement when inevitable disagreements occur, particularly between employee and boss.

Clinton Nixon, Viget Labs
Clinton Nixon

So, while you may dream of supervising a brilliant staff, be careful what you wish for -- or at least learn the best way to manage ultrasmart people. Here are six tips from those in the know.

Do Manage Results, Not Process.

It's perfectly reasonable for bosses to tell you what to do, Nixon says, but when it comes to how the work gets done, a controlling atmosphere can be frustrating. He recalls working on a Web shopping cart that needed new shipping options. Because the software wasn't very extensible, Nixon suggested rewriting the code, which he estimates would have taken two weeks. "Dealing with all the special cases in the current code would have taken at least a week, so investing another week made sense to have something more maintainable afterwards," he says.

Nixon was overruled. But because of all the bugs already in the software and others that were introduced because of the new variable, it took three weeks to finish the new feature. "We could have rewritten it in less time," he says.

"You can't take people who have a passion for something and then start to build walls around them," says Jack Hughes, CEO of TopCoder Inc., a Glastonbury, Conn.-based company that stages coding competitions. A staff made up of those types of people does need structure, but that structure should be geared more around results than process, he says.

"You should format things in terms of the results you're looking for rather than proscribing the way in which they need to get those results," Hughes says.

Do Take a Socratic Approach.

Extremely smart people rarely want to feel managed, but that doesn't mean they don't need to be, says Paul Glen, founder of the Web community and a Computerworld columnist. To pull off this sleight of hand, he says, ask questions that will lead these employees to see your point of view. "If they don't want things dictated to them, you might have to manage them in a more Socratic form," he says.

This takes time and patience, especially when you think you already know the decision that ultimately needs to be made, says Edward Martinez, CIO at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute in Tampa, Fla., who has several Ph.D.s on staff.

"You have to vet their ideas and let them come back with a recommendation that you reject or agree with," he says. "Even though you want to just make the decision, you need to give them an opportunity to be part of it."

Do Be Open to Learning New Things.

It would be wasteful not to let some of the ideas of a highly intelligent staff become reality. That's why Patrick Reagan, development director at Viget Labs, is open to exploring where experimentation may lead.

For instance, until two and a half years ago, the company had never done automated testing, but then a developer promoted the idea and things took off. "It's ingrained in our culture now," Reagan says. The company also moved from PHP for Web development to Ruby on Rails in 2006 through the encouragement of a smart developer.

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