How to Manage Your Smartest, Strangest Employee

There is a brilliant and highly accomplished engineer in my company who has managed to break the coffee machine, the toaster and so many other appliances in the company kitchen that we're considering giving his trail of broken appliances their own line item in the budget. Apparently making toast is more challenging than the complex algorithms he works with every day. Such is often the case with the uber-talented... with genius comes quirkiness. The same personality traits that make them brilliant can also make them quirky and sometimes disruptive.

To be successful, a company needs creativity, but it also needs cohesion. Successful companies depend as much upon teams of people collaborating as they do on the vision of a CEO. A lone ranger that alienates the rest of the team can be destructive to a company's culture. On the other hand, too much cohesion that is rigidly enforced can stifle the creativity of your star players, especially the entrepreneurial types.

I have often said that entrepreneurs have different DNA than others. They view problems differently and thus are able to craft solutions the rest of us could never have imagined. So I wasn't surprised to read a recent article in the Economist which revealed that there are a disproportionate number of innovators who have mental attributes that could be classified as Asperger's Syndrome, Dyslexia or Attention Deficit Disorder. Negative attributes of these disorders include the inability to focus on some things, hyper-focus on other things, difficulties with social interaction, disorganization, and procrastination.

Those attributes are clearly very negative, but the flip side — the positive characteristics — can be nothing short of brilliance. In fact, the media has often characterized the quirks of mega-entrepreneurs like Zuckerberg, Jobs and Gates as fashionably mysterious and even a bit charming. Of course, neither glamorizing your "oddball star" nor finding only the negative in a brilliant but quirky employee is helpful to your ability to manage them.

The drive, persistence, originality of perspective, and pure talent that characterizes your "internal entrepreneurs" is both a major asset to your company, and a management challenge for you. So how do you manage these internal entrepreneurs while balancing the competing interests of creativity and collaboration? As a CEO I am often faced with the challenge of how to foster innovation while keeping these side effects of innovation from being detrimental to the workplace. There is no complete answer but I know some of the necessary pieces.

First, identify your internal entrepreneurs. One major hallmark of the "internal entrepreneur" is an unwillingness to accept conventional wisdom. To find the internal entrepreneurs in your company, look for the people who often ask, "Why are we doing it this way?"

Second, recognize that an internal entrepreneur's limitations may be the same source of his or her talents, and be mindful not to stifle these qualities. I once had a member of my team who was had a penchant for control. This can often be an indicator of a major problem. It turned out that he was an entrepreneur who felt he needed to "own" a project completely, as if it were his own mini-company. Once I identified his work style as a variant of entrepreneurship as opposed to a difficult employee, his productivity soared and the company benefited.

Of course, the determination about how much leeway and special accommodations you should give to your internal entrepreneurs needs be based on many factors, not the least of which is your judgment. The most significant factor is disruption to the team. I have a fairly high tolerance for quirky work styles, but little tolerance for someone who is overly disruptive or lowers the morale of a team.

Third, be sure to organize your teams in such a way that you foster innovation across teams with multiple skillsets. Afford the most creative individuals enough independence for innovation but then move the project forward with individuals who are prone to concerted action. A company needs dialogue but once a decision is made, a team must move forward together.

And finally, if you have some really exceptional people, make sure to keep a few extra toasters in the company kitchen.

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