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.

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Moreover, if you're open to the ideas that emanate from brilliant staffers, you can learn a lot yourself, Nixon says. "When it comes to keeping up technically with smart people, you won't; you've got your own areas to cover," he says. "You can learn from them, though, and you should."

Nixon says managing someone who was a "razor-sharp genius" helped him become good at database design. "I listened to him and learned from him," he recalls.

"You have to be willing to be bested," Glen notes. However, be sure to make your star staffers justify their positions in a way that's reasoned and convincing. "You can't abdicate your managerial responsibilities," he says.

Don't Pretend to Know More Than You Do.

The worst response to recognizing that a direct report is smarter than you is to feel insecure and threatened, Glen says. "Some bosses feel compelled to make decisions about things that they're completely unqualified to make, so everyone ends up in total misery over it," he says.

It's better to accept that your role isn't to be the one with the best ideas, but rather to be the one who can determine which ideas are best, Glen says.

In fact, taking action on ideas is where you earn the respect of the highly intelligent, Martinez says. "Even if people aren't happy, they'll respect that you're standing behind your decision," he says. "Really intelligent people want to see action and results, however it gets done."

Tim Robbins, a developer who participates in coding competitions through TopCoder and manages other developers at a financial firm, says he backs off when a staff member clearly knows more than he does about a particular topic. "I might make suggestions based on my experience, but I expect him to take the lead," he says.

"I think it's important for every technical manager to realize he or she is a guide, not a chief," Nixon notes, comparing the endeavor to an expedition into the western U.S. in the early 1800s. "You may lead the expedition, in that you know where you want to end up, but you've got to trust your hunter to hunt and your coachman to take care of the horses."

Do Find Ways to Stretch Them.

Mundanity is the bane of highly intelligent staffers, who like to be challenged -- sometimes to a fault. "The tendency is to go for the shiny new thing and prioritize that over billable work," Reagan says. To offset that, at Moffitt, staffers can volunteer to join a special ideas team, which meets bimonthly to explore major concerns or opportunities. This helps maintain momentum during slow periods, Martinez says. "If they see us move on one or two ideas, it really helps morale," he says.

Be careful not to underuse smart people, Martinez adds. One of his staffers was constantly bringing new ideas to the table, so he finally moved her into a position as director of special projects, where she could be a jack of all trades. "If I kept her in a standard role as an analyst, I wouldn't get a third of the stuff I'm getting from her now," Martinez says.

Don't Be Blinded by Brilliance.

Just because a person is smart doesn't mean she should run the show. Staying out of the way of smart people doesn't mean abdicating managerial authority, Martinez says. Instead, balance when to give them room to run with their own ideas, when to monitor them and when to intervene. After all, there are many types of intelligence. A brilliant coder, for instance, may not always see big-picture strategy.

Another common mistake is deferring on every decision to the ultrasmart person in the group. Glen compares that to asking movie stars for their opinions on political issues. "To assume that someone is smart in every endeavor of life is akin to setting them up for failure," he says.

Do Maintain Your Humility.

As a technical manager, you will inevitably work with people smarter than you. "If not, you're doing a terrible job of hiring," says Nixon, who has been a manager for two and a half of his 10 years in development.

Given that, try to start each day with a sense of humility. "You're lucky to have your team, and they are going to take you to your destination; you're not taking them there," he says.

Try not to feel threatened by not being the smartest one in the room. "I've seen so many managers -- especially those who came from the programming ranks -- feel threatened by their team," Nixon says. "Feeling threatened by someone else being good at their job is poisonous."

Brandel is a Computerworld contributing writer in Newton, Mass. Contact her at

Are you a genius but your manager isn't? See our related story, "When your boss is a dunce."

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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