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Thursday 6th March 2014

The bright side

We call in at one of the UK's top think tanks to see how HR accommodates the super-bright

You don’t have to spend much time at The King’s Fund to realise it’s a place for the brightest and best.

Politicians and other thought-leaders are always hanging out at its classy central London premises, keen to assimilate some of the ideas that has given The King’s Fund a solid claim to being the UK’s leading healthcare think tank.

Clever’s everywhere. The King’s Fund’s website is packed with – properly employed – semi-colons. People you pass in The King’s Fund’s corridors use the word ‘commission’ as a noun, not just a verb. The Chief Executive – Chris Ham – is a professor of twenty years’ standing, who has advised the WHO, the World Bank and successive governments.

No, there’s no doubt that when you’re at The King’s Fund, you’re in the company of some pretty high IQs.

So is it hard for HR to manage individuals of high intellectual worth? How do you make sure bright sparks don’t burn themselves out or, even worse, burn the fingers of the maybe not-so-gifted individuals around them?

Top of one’s game

Shirley Collier, Head of HR for The King’s Fund, has a track record of managing exceptional talent. (Her previous employer, ten years ago, was the National Gallery, prior to which she was an HRM at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery.)

Collier recognizes that HR does need to prepare itself for working with clever colleagues – but insists that doesn’t mean making exceptions for the gifted.

‘The biggest issue is that bright people think they know about HR,’ says Collier with a smile. ‘And some do have good instincts, it’s true. So as an HR person you really do have to be on top of your game.’

Keep rules simple, recommends Collier. ‘Complex rules tend to lead to non-compliance, especially from individuals who believe they intuitively know what’s best.’

Collier cites an example of good practice – The King’s Fund’s guidance on employees’ use of social media. ‘Rather than implementing a strict policy, issuing guidance meant breaches could be dealt with in the form of a grown-up, sensible conversation,’ she says.

In the area of social media, Collier says, The King’s Fund can’t be too draconian for fear of hindering the organizational purpose. Internal and external social platforms are now essential to the trading of intellectual capital, and this benefit substantially exceeds the risk, ‘which you can never eliminate entirely, anyway.’

Should HR bend any rules for exceptional performers? ‘Some schools of talent management say yes,’ says Collier, ‘but my personal opinion is that there should be  a sensible deal in place for everyone, and basic rules should  be entirely non-negotiable.’

Clever mavericks, who in Collier’s case may well come from academia where independent thinking and criticism are core skills, can cause a headache. But you should never forget their value, she counsels.

‘It’s easy for HR to see mavericks as liabilities,’ she says. ‘But never forget that working with brilliant people should be a pleasure. People who can take complex information and communicate it in an inspiring way – they remind you, and potentially everyone else, how fantastic the organization is.’

There are other pitfalls too, she warns.

Halo effects

The line management of clever individuals can pose challenges. ‘Some managers think bright people don’t need management, and give them too much lee-way,’ she says. ‘HR needs to keep an eye on this and work with line accordingly.’

For bright people development is crucially important and so HR needs to ensure that L&D is up to scratch. They rightly see their high intellectual worth as their biggest asset, and want to nurture it accordingly.

Skills can be highly variable even among the brightest staff.  At The King’s Fund, externally sourced development includes writing training, where specialist trainers examine writing samples and suggest improvements to style.

There are also ‘floating’ development budgets that individuals can apply for, and that can be used for any type of development, including personal research projects.

Recently, an employee satisfaction survey suggested that Recognition was an area for improvement – a challenge that Collier believes is not unusual in an environment of bright individuals.

Shirley Collier. Photo: The King’s Fund

‘Many bright people use their own personal standards to evaluate success – for them that equates to published work, or recognition by a senior stakeholder – and they may  forget the importance of manager or peer approval,’ she says.

In other words, people with high standards aren’t always automatically supportive to those a rung or two further down the accomplishment ladder.

The King’s Fund has introduced systemic changes to encourage a freer flow of appropriate Recognition, such as all-staff breakfasts in which departments are given a platform to share their successes.

‘It’s important not to equate intellectual calibre with the obvious functions, such as Policy,’ says Collier. ‘There’s a wide range of clever areas here – Communications is really leading-edge, we have inspiring leadership development practitioners and smart people running our commercial activities, like events.’

A few miles across London, another HR leader outlines her thoughts on managing bright people – this time based on years of experience of working with some of the city’s most brilliant lawyers.

The power of personal

Karen Chalmers’ career has included HR Directorships in investment banking, asset management and law firms such as SJ Berwin and, currently, Winckworth Sherwood, a firm that advises the Church of England as part of a very diverse client base.

‘Lawyers can be challenging when it comes to L&D in particular,’ says Chalmers. ‘Their business is all about being clever, and many won’t easily concede that they or their skills could be improved.’

Chalmers has found an effective way to engage senior lawyers in L&D is by bundling training interventions together as leadership development – an approach which engages them on an intellectual level.

She also agrees with Collier that HR needs to be on top of its game when building relationships with demanding individuals.

‘You need to earn credibility immediately,’ she says. ‘And when that’s not possible, tenacity is a very useful quality.’

Chalmers believes that personal qualities, rather than being an HR standard bearer, trigger the best relationships with lawyers.

‘Don’t lead on rules and regulations’, she advises. ‘Find a nugget to work through with them – some low-hanging fruit – that in a business sense will work to your mutual advantage.’

There’s a simple equation here, according to Chalmers. ‘The cleverer the people you work with, the higher the quality of work you need to do,’ she says.

Management averse

Over in internet-land, opinions regarding management of bright people differ substantially.

A 2012 paper by Steven Braid cites a Goffee and Jones belief that ‘clever people have one defining characteristic; it is that they do not want to be led.’

Perhaps that’s generally accurate. But it can hardly be a universal truth.

So whilst Braid’s paper explains how to be not a manager per se but a ‘Compassionate Guardian’, ‘leading clever people without them feeling that they are being managed’, an article on Forbes is more reassuring to those who prefer their management style to be of a more robust, tried-and-tested variety.

In that article, borrowed from Quora, American tech guy Tom Yuin answers the question: ‘How Do You Manage People Who Are Clearly Smarter Than You, Without Them Thinking You’re An Idiot?’

The answer, put simply, is to just be a good manager.

Yuin tells us to do the same things we would with ungifted individuals, such as respect them, communicate well and not hide from taking responsibility.

Intelligent retention

Back at The King’s Fund, Shirley Collier considers the retention of bright individuals.

A realist, she recognises that ‘ultimately, there’s only a set amount of work to be done’ at The King’s Fund, which is a relatively small organisation of 120 people. Consequently, it can’t satisfy the long-term career aspirations of every bright spark that crosses its threshold.

‘We treat people well,’ says Collier. ‘We aim to give them the kind of work that stretches them and will help develop their careers – but not necessarily here.’

Turnover of talent is to be expected, then. But as Collier realises, in an organisation based on intellectual capital the occasional refresh of minds can be the very opposite of catastrophic.

About the author

Andrew Baird

Andrew is the CEO of HRville. He is also Employer Brand Director of Blackbridge Communications, Editorial Director of Professionals in Law and an associate of The Smarty Train. Previously, he was the MD of TCS Advertising.