Can you have a team comprised of too many smart people?
“Sometimes too many geniuses is a problem,” said New York Times columnist David Brooks, speaking in early February on PBS’s Charlie Rose. Brooks noted that some of the difficulties that the Obama administration was having initially on his economic and foreign policy teams was caused by the proliferation of so many smart people. While Brooks alluded to “brains,” he was not simply speaking about intelligence, but also about strong-willed people. These are folks who are more inclined to believe in the strength of their own ideas rather than the ideas of colleagues.
Every successful coach knows that a team of stars is not a team unless some of those stars are willing to channel their formidable talents to team rather than individual excellence. The Four-time NBA champion San Antonio Spurs are a prime example of superstars merging ego and talent toward championships rather than individual stardom. Their coach, Greg Popovich, has been masterful in getting stars and role players to meld as one team in the quest for NBA titles.
A manager boasting such a collection of talented people is fortunate indeed, but unless she finds a way to bring her team together around common goals, the team will be ineffectual. To that end, here are some suggestions:
Set big goals.
Nothing motivates talent like a big goal. Talented people love nothing better than tackling big problems. The more difficult the obstacle, the more engaged they become. Therefore, put the goal before the team. Ask them how to solve it. And then challenge them to do it. Big goals are common in design, engineering and research sectors; innovation fuels their drive.
Rub egos together.
Smart people like being around other smart people. They especially enjoy proving how much smarter they are than the others. So use this ego to the team’s advantage. Competition for scarce resources like funding and manpower will keep people on their toes. Treat everyone fairly — but not necessarily equally. That is, the more one achieves, the more recognition he will receive.
Keep team goals first.
Work to ensure that rivalries are achievement-oriented, not personal. Bruised egos are fine; hurt feelings are not. Make certain that everyone continues to feel part of the team.
Sometimes you need to invite a star to leave, however. Not because she is a malcontent or because she is causing trouble but because she needs to move on for the good of the organization as well as herself.
Such talents may need to move into management, where they can learn to build and sustain their own teams. Or they may be destined for senior management and need to spend time early in their careers as staff assistants to senior leaders. The military routinely assigns promising junior and mid-level officers to work as aides to senior command officers. Dwight Eisenhower, Colin Powell, and David Petraeus — to name three — all benefitted from working in this system. Powell also served as a military attaché to Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger during the Reagan Administration.
Getting a team to work together may be more art than science. And having a team of especially talented people may be a manager’s gift — but unless she can harness the individuals to work collectively, it’s a wasted gift. The individuals may remain like uncut diamonds, rough and unpolished, rather than glittering as jewels in a singular crown.