How to Manage Clever People by Margaret Heffernan


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Artists, designers, and programmers are different, difficult, and–depending on your strategy–delightful.

When I tell people that I spent 13 years producing radio and TV programs and then another 15 years running software companies, they always look puzzled and ask: What’s the connection? The answer is simple: talent. Both industries depend crucially on highly creative individuals, many of whom can be eccentric, independent, and high maintenance. Success in both of these industries hinges on being able to manage and inspire talent.

I didn’t understand this when I started. I enjoyed highly productive working relationships with writers, actors, designers, programmers, and musicians for no other reason than that I adored them. I admired their talent, loved their spirit, and wanted them to be happy. But, on reflection, I’ve come to understand that there is slightly more to it than that.

Great talent is special and you should respect it. There’s a popular belief that creativity is inherently childlike, that creative people are infants who need to “learn” and not be spoiled. This is wrong. Trying to fit superstars into a box is counter-productive, perverse, and doomed. But don’t go to the other extreme and treat these individuals as though they’re made of glass. They’re tough–maybe tougher than you are–and know their worth. What they most want is respect.

Creatives aren’t interested in rules for their own sake and may be highly driven to break them. Don’t let that wind you up. As long as they’re delivering great work, that’s all that matters. I once had an immensely talented director who didn’t want to work in the open plan production office; He insisted on his own tiny room. Fighting him on this wasted time and lost trust. He knew how he worked and was better off on his own.

It may at first seem contradictory but I also believe true talent respects constraints. Composers work to split second timings when they write for movies or TV. Writers appreciate word counts and running times. So don’t be afraid to be explicit and clear with them about budgets and schedules. Steve Jobs used to have a mantra: “Real artists ship.” He was right. True professionals deliver. Only amateurs think it’s clever to do otherwise.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember about true artists is that they are highly driven to develop themselves and their craft. They will go to the places that let them do this and they will leave those that don’t. This may come across as arrogance but it isn’t; It is just a sincere desire to do fantastic work. That can work in your favor if you appreciate and recognize it.

Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones have written a wonderful academic study on this subject called Managing Clever People. It’s accurate but omits one thing: Treat clever people well and they are the most fun people to work with in the world.

Margaret Heffernan is an entrepreneur and author. She has been chief executive of InfoMation Corporation, ZineZone Corporation, and iCAST Corporation. In 2011, she published her third book, Willful Blindness. @M_Heffernan

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