Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The brains in a company are at the bottom of the pyramid

The higher you go up the corporate ladder, the duller you become. And yet decision-making is concentrated at the top. FT columnist Lucy Kellaway quotes a graduate trainee on the subject:
The main thing that had struck him so far was that people seemed to get dimmer the higher they went in the organisation. His fellow trainees were almost all brilliant, he said, and people at the next level up were also pretty smart. But those 10 years older were pedestrian by comparison, while some of the partners seemed borderline moronic.

I asked if he had any explanation for this. He looked at me as if I were a moron too and said the reason was self-selection. Really smart people don’t stay at the institutions they have fought so hard to get into. The best leave within two or three years; the slightly less good stay a bit longer, and only the also-rans and the terminally unimaginative are in for the long haul. 
Kellaway rightly points out that success in a company has little to do with brilliance. A company values other things in people:
Rather than reward brilliance it prefers skills that graduates can’t see: good judgment, a nice way with clients, and an instinct for when to bite your lip. Even if today’s partners weren’t boring to start off with, they quickly learn to seem that way. 
So, there are strengths that people at the top bring to the table. The challenge is how to marry the analytical brilliance at the bottom with the sound judgement and rounded view that obtains at the top of a company. One thing that Kellaway highlights is that the two levels need to talk to each - and understand what the other is saying. The other thing, which I believe is important, is that decision-making must be truly participative. Don't leave decision making only to sound judgement; bring in the creative, disruptive types at the bottom as well. 


Anonymous said...

Good one. I agree there ought to be marriage between corporate & campus or as you mentioned between the technical & managerial.

But apart from two extremes - young employee & veteran HOD - there is third layer of "Middle managers" that are expected to do both - have a bit of judgment skills and a bit of analytical skills. At one time, they're expected to play with complex excel formulas and at other time, they're expected to negotiate with client or present to Board or lead a group of people. I see their life becoming a little miserable (relatively), as I tend be sailing in that boat. Any piece of advise for this layer? To take positively - when a middle manager passes from this dichotomy, he is perhaps in the transitory phase from functional officer to head of function. What do you think?

Interesting reading as always. Thanks for sharing.

T T Ram Mohan said...

Anonymous, you have raised an interesting issue about the role of middle managers.

Yes, it does appear that middle management falls between the two stools of top management and the junior tier. The way to manage this situation, perhaps, is to rely on the juniors for the analytical work and develop and hone the skills that one associates with top management. Of course, the latter is not easily accomplished- it comes with experience.

The other thing to do is to de-layer the company so that middle management is kept to the minimum. Also, to operate through relatively small business units. Then, the (few people) at the top focus on coordination while the brains below get the analytical work done.


NS said...

Every person rises to his level of incompetence. I am forgetting the name of gentleman who brought forward the above idea.