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13 March 2011

How to Stay Employed

Companies don’t need brainy people

By Lucy Kellaway

A few days ago, I had lunch with a man who until recently held one of the biggest jobs in British business. Over the foie gras, we discussed (in ascending order of interest): the view from the executive dining room, the charms of small children, the news judgment of the Financial Times and mid-life crises.

Finally, the conversation swung round to the problems of the well known company he used to run. One of the main difficulties, he said, was that it employed too many intelligent people.

At first I thought he was joking. Surely companies need as many bright people as possible. You need a super bright person at the top, a John Browne figure. Under him, you need more bright people, one of whom will eventually take over. Further down, you want a layer of clever middle managers. And, at the entry level, you must hire the best and the brightest you can get your hands on.

Not at all, said my lunch companion. There is nothing worse than a managerial meeting of brilliant minds, all seeing multiple sides to complex problems. What you need are energetic people with gusto who get things done. They can be smart - but they must not be cerebral. Big companies need one or two heavy-duty analytical brains: beyond that, declining returns set in. When recruiting for future senior managers, companies should forget about Oxford and Cambridge and hire a much broader range of less academic people.

The lack of a connection between the conventional academic brain and business success was underlined last week by a survey showing that what unites Britain's top entrepreneurs is not so much their daring or brilliance, but their difficulty with reading. Alan Sugar and Richard Branson, to name two: both dyslexic and neither of them graduates.

I used to think it was the other way round: that the university stars did not go into business because they thought it was boring and looked down on it. The closest to true business they ever got was McKinsey, which, I hope we all agree, is not the same thing at all.

But the idea that it is business that cannot cope with, and possibly does not need, big brains is one that I am warming to. So long as a company is managed in a sensible way (a slightly heroic assumption), it does not matter if the vast bulk of employees are somewhat below average intelligence. It is not just that the indians need not be bright, the chiefs need not be particularly bright, either.

Think what characterises the really intelligent person. They can think for themselves. They love abstract ideas. They can look dispassionately at the facts. Humbug is their enemy. Dissent comes easily to them, as does complexity. These are traits that are not only unnecessary for most business jobs, they are actually a handicap when it comes to rising through the ranks of large companies.

I have heard two sad stories from friends of mine in the last couple of weeks that make the point. Both have first class degrees from Oxbridge. Both started brilliantly in business careers but are now, 15 to 20 years later, coming unstuck.

Friend number one works for a very large and very successful US company. He was writing a report for the board on a complex, nuanced subject, and wrote a complex, nuanced report. The simple-minded man above him sent it back saying that three points are the most the company tolerates, as a matter of policy. He has now been told that he is too creative and too analytical, that he must pull his socks up, or down, as the case may be.

If complexity is a problem for companies, dissent is a bigger one. Friend number two has fallen at this post. Before I tell you her tragic tale, I want to go into a brief detour on a pet subject.

For all the talk of diversity, big companies are spectacularly undiverse in terms of thought, and becoming more so. If you are too bright or too bolshie to sign up to the babble, you are not going to get anywhere.

One of the greatest corporate fallacies is that companies want people who "think out of the box". This is one of the most irritating phrases in the English language. Where and what is this box? And what is so bad about it? In fact, companies really want people to think inside the box at all times. They demand assent, not only on what the company ought to be doing but also on how individuals are feeling.

Back to friend number two. She has a senior job in a successful UK company. Recently, she went on a top management bonding weekend, full of all the usual morale-raising nonsense. As an intelligent person, she found this an uncongenial way of passing her free time. Still, she choked back her feelings and settled down to fill in the endless questionnaires.

"Irony is one of my favourite forms of humour", said one of the questions. In the fine tradition of Jane Austen, she ticked the box. Alas, this was the wrong answer. Companies cannot tolerate irony - it is much too threatening. She is not going to be fired, but it has been made clear to her that unless she seriously rethinks her sense of humour she might fit better somewhere else.

I suspect that matters are getting worse for the intelligent person in business. Dissent was never really possible in companies (and mostly for good reason). But at least in the old, autocratic days this was explicit. If you said something that your boss disagreed with, he shouted at you. This was not a great situation for the free thinking mind, but at least it was honest.

Now bright people are told to think freely, but are ostracised when they do.

If you think your company is different, can I suggest you start the week with a little experiment? At your first meeting, try saying something - anything - way outside the box and let me know what happens to you. I have a feeling it is not going to be very nice.

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