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Taming the Savage Genius

The delicate art of managing employees who are way, way smarter than you.
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In many ways, Atiq Raza was the kind of employee managers dream about. He held degrees in physics, philosophy, electrical engineering, and material sciences. His passion for his work -- creating cutting-edge semiconductor technology for a Silicon Valley start-up -- bordered on the obsessive, and he regularly worked in the lab 18 hours a day. At the age of 30, Raza was dauntless, creative, and productive -- a real star.

Yet that same star power also made Raza a manager's nightmare. His ego was colossal, his behavior temperamental. He had little patience for co-workers and fought constantly with higher-ups, scorning their lack of technical knowledge and adherence to procedure. "I was aghast at their inability to convey to me how exactly my work related to their financial objectives," he says. "I thought managers were stupid."

That was in 1979. These days, Raza is a bit more sympathetic. After all, as CEO of Raza Foundries, a San Jose-based incubator of high-tech businesses, the 53-year-old entrepreneur is responsible for managing a staff of 100 -- and many of them are every bit as brilliant, arrogant, and difficult as he himself once was. "Managing these people isn't for everybody," Raza says. "But they're powerful engines. If you harness their energy and creativity, you have a Ferrari on your hands."


GENIUS LESSONS: Atiq Raza, once a young hotshot, now manages 100 temperamental superstars of his own.

Managers may talk about teamwork and collaboration. But most, like Raza, will admit that the contribution of a single, exceptional individual often makes all the difference. That's especially the case in a knowledge-based economy, where a company's fortunes rise and fall with its collective brainpower.

Yet, while nearly all business owners say they're forever on the hunt for the best and the brightest, few know what to do when confronted with an actual, bona fide, off-the-charts genius. "Organizations were created to deal with the lowest common denominator," says Tom Duening, a professor of management at the University of Houston and co-author of Managing Einsteins: Leading High-Tech Workers in the Digital Age. Super high performers, Duening says, "have been fast-tracked through school, lauded as indispensable, and are constantly in demand. But a company's management structure doesn't account for that."

A survey by the Center for Creative Leadership, a Greensboro, N.C., think tank, found that one-third of high-performing employees lack certain "emotional competencies" -- such as the ability to build a team or control their emotions in high-stress situations. The result: Their careers plateau or derail. And much of the blame, says Kerry A. Bunker, a senior associate at the center, rests squarely with starstruck bosses, who have little idea how to tame the savage genius.


SMART GUY: Raza inspires "maniacal loyalty" in his troops.

Raza has spent an entire career trying to overcome that challenge. By the late 1990s, he was chief operating officer of the semiconductor giant Advanced Micro Devices, where he was responsible for some 10,000 employees -- though he devoted most of his attention to an elite group of about 100. Those were the scientists and engineers working on the company's famous K6 microprocessor chips, which were nearly as fast as those produced by rival Intel -- which then held a virtual monopoly in the market -- but cost 25% less to manufacture.

For three years, Raza's group worked nearly nonstop. When the K6 finally was released, Intel didn't know what hit it. Not only did the technology make the sub-$1,000 personal computer possible, it made AMD the only major competitor Intel has known. How did Raza do it? By getting his engineering team as fired up as he was to beat Intel, relaying urgent business objectives to a group of employees generally kept out of the loop. "These types of employees need to believe in the cause, and in the integrity of the person leading the charge," Raza says. "They need to understand in their own language how what they do figures into the larger context of the company."


They're powerful engines. If you harness them, you have a Ferrari on your hands."

Raza has since developed a reputation for inspiring a kind of maniacal loyalty in even the most difficult employees. When he left AMD in 1999 to launch Raza Foundries, more than 40 top staffers asked either to join him or be placed at one of the companies where he was on the board. And why not? Raza involves his technical talent in nearly every aspect of the company's decision-making process. At Raza Foundries, top performers from every department sit in on at least 80% of high-level business meetings. Human resources is even instructed to use engineering lingo so procedures and policies seem more nerd-friendly.

Last updated: May 1, 2003




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