Strategies for Working with "Disorganized" Brilliant People
My first real job was as a temp assistant to the head of public affairs and public education for Children’s Home Society. My boss, Charlotte De Armond, was the kind of woman who was always at the top of her game, a woman of firsts (including an Academy Award), but she was dead last in organization and productivity.
Charlotte was exacting and expected the sun and moon with a side of super novas, so when I decided to organize her office one morning, I knew it could have erupted in termination or applause. That was the day she hired me.
Several years and job moves later, Charlotte called to invite me to breakfast at her home in LA. She was retiring, which for her meant she was striking out on her own to open a communications consultancy and she wanted me to do some freelance writing—and organizing--for her.
Brilliant and Disorganized
I showed up at 9 a.m. promptly. She opened the door and immediately confessed that she was on a deadline project, and to bear with her as she explained her needs between calls. Here’s how it went:
I barely sit down in her office when she gets a call. She hangs up and turns to her computer to poke out a few lines, then gets up to get another cup of tea and turns back around to save and name her document. On the way to the kitchen, she notices the pile of laundry on couch, while her dog follows her into the kitchen to beg for a treat. She puts water in the tea kettle, gets the treat, pets the dog, and decides to throw the dog bed covers into the wash, and realizes the wet load in the washer has to be hung on the line (yes, she even hung her laundry in the sun).
After hanging the laundry she stops to dead-head a few begonias and decides to re-pot the cactus that’s outgrown its home. She returns to the kitchen to wash her hands when her phone rings again. While she’s taking an appointment her call waiting interrupts and she puts her client on hold to answer it. Her best friend is coming into town for the weekend. Yipee, all good, but when she flashes to her prior call, the line is dead, so she has to go find her client’s phone number in a contact book somewhere within the piles on her desk. She ferrets around for a minute or so and exasperated, turns back to me.
I hear a loud crash audible to only me signifying the sound of her plans and goals being dashed against the wall. Oblivious, Charlotte continues talking in fits and starts about her new business.
She finally finds her client’s phone number, excuses herself and goes back into the kitchen to find the phone, when the UPS guy knocks for a signature. The phone rings again. It’s her client. She goes to the front door, signs for the UPS guy while confirming her appointment with her client (knowing she needs to find her calendar but really can’t take the time), and heaves the UPS box into the living room.
Once again she returns to the kitchen to make her cup of tea and realizes she never turned the stove on to boil the water in the tea kettle, so she turns the dial and adjusts the flame, grabs an apple and a stack of mail that needs attention and heads back into her office and back to me. She sits for a moment trying to remember what she named her document and which folder she saved it in. The teakettle whistles. It’s now 10 a.m.
Everyone Has a Different Level of Need for Order
It might seem from this story that Charlotte was incapable of producing work or getting things done. The truth is that she was prolific in her output and consistently innovative and she did her best work in the very early mornings and late at night.
So, whether you work in an organization or a small business, take heart: neither you nor the brilliantly disorganized need to change. In fact it’s not a healthy expectation that anybody should orcan change.
Sara Caputo of Radiant Organizing consults with organizations to help teams map out the productivity strategies that best showcase each individual’s strengths, acknowledge their productivity personalities, and their unique contributions in service of big picture goals.
Caputo offers 4 Productivity Strategies for Working with Brilliant Disorganized People
1. Hire an Assistant
First, a note to the creative, brilliant, disorganized leader: Hire an assistant who can appreciate your style of getting things done, and give them permission and authority to keep you on task.
2. Develop Razor Sharp Boundaries
And a note to the assistant: Stay clear of shame and blame—your boss’s habits are not likely to change or improve much, if at all. Accept them. And develop razor sharp boundaries to help you resist being pulled into chaos.
3. Manage Expectations
As with the creative leader and her assistant, businesses and teams need vision and leadership, as well as a sense of order and direction. And those needs may not be met in not one person, but within the constellation of the team itself.
Get real and transparent and define the roles each team member will play in service of the overall big picture. That means your visionary, creative, brilliant, and intensely right-brained leader will be best at invention and brainstorming, and unless they’re Steve Jobs clones, they won’t be good at the details. Don’t expect them to change to fit your mold.
4. Focus on Values and Commitment to Innovation over Personality
Everyone has a different level of need for order, and everyone has a different daily work process and style of meeting deadlines. Being rigid and attempting to force others, especially creatives, into line will backfire, cause resentment and kill creativity. If you are the kind of person who gets things done ahead of deadline, and your task depends on a contribution from the creative who prefers to come screeching in at the last second, keep focused on your team’s or organization’s value and commitment to innovation above personality and individual process. This requires a certain level of tolerance for ambiguity, as well as trust that deliverables will be met (one way or the other).
Back in the day when I worked with Charlotte, my workaround on #4 was to hang laundry, prune roses and pot cactus with her and use the time to brainstorm and capture the tasks necessary for implementing those ideas. It was consistently productive process that allowed us to both to do what we were good at.
Sara Caputo's brilliance can be captured in our new She Negotiates adventure, The Daily Thrive, launching January 30. In addition to productivity, The Daily Thrive will offer daily blasts of learning with coaching and feedback from the experts on the subjects of negotiation, personal finance, nourishment, work-life balance, and everyday technology. Follow the links to get on the mailing list to get the scoop on joining us.