detail of painting, copyright 2006 by Benice Horowitz, Stamford, Connecticut. All rights reserved.

Articles, Case Studies, News, Events



Base Camp Four: Leadership Near the Summit

Below is a brief case summary that illustrates the thesis of our next research study. The focus of the study, to be conducted by Clare Huffington and Sharon Horowitz, will be on the dilemmas and challenges of leading a team of talented and highly technical people.

Hired right out of MIT, Jim had worked his way up from programmer to CTO of a high-tech company. His passion for problem solving coupled with his quick wit and mathematical aptitude propelled him on his rapid rise through the ranks. But now, in mid January, he was looking at a “meets expectations” bonus, and, more to the point, a year-end review that described him as brilliant, talented, and loyal, but also a micro-manager, controlling, and in the words of his colleagues and direct reports, dismissive, impatient, self-absorbed, and unable to communicate a clear vision.

He had read the comments with a mixture of pride and horror. At first, he passionately refuted and discounted many of them, but eventually he surrendered and took the high road: “The feedback was golden,” he recalled. “It felt like a gut punch to acknowledge it, but I realize now that I was a bit of an ass.”

Jim had always taken pride in his ability to parlay his analytical and conceptual gifts into software programming, but he realized now that the clarity of his own thinking and knowledge had not successfully translated into team leadership skills. Rather, he had become like Captain Ahab—the lone man with a drive and compelling vision, but with an increasingly mutinous crew.

“It had an ‘us-versus-them’ quality, and even my most loyal team members had become alienated and rebellious,” he said. After careful consideration, Jim came to realize that the “whale in the room” was not some kind of hopeless quest, but his own insecurities coupled with his intellectual gifts.

“Because I was the youngest of 3 brothers and I came from a highly competitive family, I couldn’t stop showing off how smart I was and that left no room for anyone else to shine. In fact, the one comment in the feedback that kept ringing in my head was ‘stop showing off how much you know; it’s not about you anymore! We know you are smart. It’s about your team!’”

For an individual like Jim, this was hard stuff to swallow, particularly since he had always been rewarded for showing others that he was, indeed, the smartest of them all. Now, however, in the position of leading a team of equally brilliant and talented people, Jim realized that he was facing a challenge that caught him by surprise and that none of his prior experience had prepared him to handle. The task facing Jim is one that challenges many high-tech experts: how to effectively lead the intellectual giants of their organization. Hired and then promoted for their tenacity and expertise, these kinds of workers—dubbed “Clever People” by Rob Goffee at London Business School and Gareth Jones at France’s Insead, pose unique management challenges.1

“Clever People” are individuals who relish their own autonomy and inventiveness. They are truly brilliant in their own unique way, as well as being naturally competitive and creative. Indeed, that’s how they got where they were in the first place and that’s how they keep their seat at the table.

One on one, Jim admired them and got along just fine with all of them, except the one or two who were nipping at his heels. At the same time, since they needed him for their own job security, they jealously guarded their relationship with him and frequently switched between loyalty and contempt for each other. As he zero’d in on his team’s behavior, he realized how much he felt like a single parent with a large family of kids all competing for his attention while trying to push each other out of the way. He tried not to choose favorites, but sometimes he just couldn’t help it.

This dynamic could not go on. It was inhibiting the growth of the department. They needed to identify and implement key strategic change initiatives to keep up with the changing business climate while at the same time cut out redundancies. They needed to expand over a wider geography and grow the next level of talent and business lines, while keeping costs under control. And, he had to surreptitiously begin grooming a potential successor.

While at some level, Jim knew what had to be done, the day-to-day practice of getting his group of experts to work harmoniously felt more like an uphill battle. Jim’s frustration was made even worse by the fact that he secretly wondered if he might not be up to the task. He had often joked that Spock was his hero, because emotions, particularly intense emotions, were an enigma to him. “I just wanted to know why everyone couldn’t just be rational and get the job done.” he said.

We want to hear from you:
Clearly, Jim faces a common dilemma. Over the next few months we will be conducting qualitative research and come up with a list of tricks of the trade, lessons learned, tools, and best practices for leaders of technical all-stars.

How do you lead your top team and create the organizational conditions that facilitate their brilliance as individuals but also creates the environment for innovation and execution—the best of team thinking—to emerge? We want to know from you. What have been your real experiences leading teams and being members of senior teams. What works, what doesn’t? We want your nightmares and your dream scenarios. Please feel free to comment here or contact Sharon Horowitz at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Your comments can be anonymous—it’s your choice—and replies will be kept confidential.

1Leading Clever People: How do you manage people who don’t want to be led and may be smarter than you?” Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones Harvard Business Review, March 2007 (Note: a subscription is not required if you agree to view an advertisement prior to access.)

Page 1 of 1