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 / Winter 2010 / Issue 61(originally published by Booz & Company)


Best Business Books 2010: Human Capital

Most books on talent speak in glowing (and often generic) terms about their subject, but Clever paints a more balanced portrait. The authors, for example, are explicit about the destruction that talented people can wreak, rightly pointing out that many highly dysfunctional organizations are full of clever people.

The book describes the characteristics that distinguish clevers. For example, the authors observe that a strong belief in their own intellect is central to the identity of clever people, which can make it difficult for them to let go of a project when it’s time to move on. They note that clevers see themselves as highly independent and self-reliant, and usually care more about projects that engage them than they care about the organization as a whole. In other words, they have a free-agent mentality, and thus often fail to recognize the extent to which they rely on organizational resources to bring their passions to fruition.

At the same time, Goffee and Jones make clear that clever people are not easily replaced in organizations. This is because the knowledge they hold is, almost by definition, tacit. Their skills are in many ways more like the craft skills of the medieval period than the codifiable and communicable skills that typified the Industrial Revolution. As a result, cleverness is hard to capture in conventional knowledge management systems, and clever people know this: It is one reason they value themselves so highly.

Clevers need leaders who are explicit in their recognition of the symbiosis between individual achievement and organizational requirements, firm in representing the needs of the latter, and skilled in providing opportunities that enable clever people to make the most of their talents. Much of the book is therefore devoted to an examination of how to lead clevers — both as individuals and in teams. In one of the most useful and original sections of the book, the authors create a typology of clever teams based on the distinctive ways in which clevers perceive themselves: as techies, creatives, problem solvers, professionals, strategists, or senior managers. The authors explain the inherent strengths and characteristic weaknesses of each type, and give highly specific suggestions for how to lead them to accomplish larger objectives.

Goffee and Jones emphasize throughout that authenticity is required of anyone who seeks to manage clevers. This is in part because clevers respond best to respect, but also because they are quick to recognize and reject insincerity as well as boilerplate explanations and generic motivational spurs. Interestingly, research indicates that the youngest generation of workers — often referred to as millennials — place a similarly high value on authentic communication. This suggests that leaders in the knowledge economy should cultivate their ability to listen and to empathize. It seems that the management of human capital will require leaders to become more human.

Talent in Context

For readers who find Clever light on supporting research, Chasing Stars: The Myth of Talent and the Portability of Performance is a perfect companion volume, as well as a brilliant book that offers extensive documentation. It is also the best business book of the year on human capital.

In it, Boris Groysberg, an associate professor in the organizational behavior unit at Harvard Business School, offers robust support for the view that talent in a knowledge economy must be understood in an organizational context. His thesis, derived from classical human capital theory, is that superior performance is achieved when talented individuals optimally leverage organizational resources. His findings, and the force and richness of both his data and his presentation, should have an indelible effect on how we understand exceptional performance. He also offers clear cautionary lessons about the portability of talent.

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