In my work, I play two major roles. One is as an innovator, creating new ideas and products. But I am also a manager. Thinking about these roles has made me aware of a dilemma facing creators, and the companies that employ them.
There are as many work styles and cognitive preferences as there are people, but there are some clear categories into which they fall. One major division is what I call “brain vs. brawn”. Do you engage in abstract conceptual thinking (brain), or do you prefer to do things (brawn)? Are you a “brainiac” or a “brawniac” based on your thinking style and work style — or a mix of both?
Braniacs are more abstract and strategic in their thinking, and look at the big picture. They think about the medium to long term, and enjoy pursuing and achieving what are often ambitious and challenging goals. They enjoy difficult conceptual problems, and are often the ones with breakthrough ideas.
Brawniacs, on the other hand, focus more on operational issues. They take care of the details. They enjoy completing a list of tasks, and their short-term focus gets those tasks done quickly and efficiently.
Creators and managers
As you may already have guessed, brawniacs make excellent managers. They are good at identifying and solving operational issues, paying attention to detail, ensuring that things are working smoothly, and producing results, at least in the short term. They are good at these things because they enjoy them.
In contrast, due to their conceptual cognitive preferences, brainiacs enjoy both thinking and creating new things. They don’t like dealing with the nuts and bolts. They are not managers, and they are unlikely to enjoy being managers, as it forces them to do things they don’t enjoy. Brainiacs can become great strategic leaders, but they will be, at best, competent managers.
Consider a hard-working, talented brainiac. The quality of her work brings her to the attention of higher management, who decide to “reward” her with a promotion to a managerial position. While she may enjoy the additional authority and status — not to mention an enhanced paycheck — she may soon come to regard her “reward” as a curse rather than a blessing. Now she has to direct and monitor the efforts of others, instead of doing the conceptual, analytical, and creative work she enjoys. She has to focus on short-term goals, and get her team to meet them. She spends much of her time in meetings. She has to pay attention to details, not only in her own work, but also in that of her team. She is likely to become frustrated and annoyed, perhaps even depressed, because as a manager, she can no longer do the conceptual, analytical or creative work that she enjoys and is good at.
This is the dilemma: in most organizations, brainiacs need to become managers if they are to advance their careers. They don’t enjoy being managers, and would add significantly more value to the organization if they did the work they are best at. This is a problem not only for the brainiac; it is also a problem for the organization, even for society at large. Requiring creators to become managers to rise in an organization is a misuse of talent, and risks losing valuable ideas from a creator-turned-manager who no longer has time to create.
Because they cannot execute their preferred work style and cannot play out their preferred conceptual thinking style, many disillusioned creator-managers wind up leaving their managerial jobs and becoming free agents, or starting new ventures where they can do the strategic, creative work they love, and hire others to take care of the operational details. In this way, many organizations lose top talent, and with them the investment they have made in them.
How can an organization resolve this problem? In industries such as software, some firms have dual career tracks. Employees can advance either as managers (e.g., managing a team of programmers) or as creators (e.g., writing software). Both the manager track and the creator track offer equal rewards, and those rewards are based on the value the individual adds to the organization, rather than, say, how many people work for them.
Are we likely to see many organizations adopt dual career tracks to resolve the creator-manager dilemma? Probably not. Measuring the value added by individuals is in general very difficult. But more importantly, even though a dual career track program may be desirable from the perspective of the shareholders of a firm, the managers of that firm are unlikely to implement it, as they would see it as threatening their own status and rewards.
If you’re a brawniac — a pragmatic doer and talented manager — be happy: you can do the managing that you love and that fits your cognitive preferences, and get both honored and paid well. But if you’re a brainiac, a conceptual thinker and creator stuck in a managerial role that doesn’t fit to your preferred thinking style and work style, think about whether you should stay for the money or cash out and start doing what you love and what is more in line with your cognitive preferences. That’s what I did, and it was the best decision I ever made.