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Fixing the Smartest Person in the Room Issue

smartest person in the room

The “Smartest Person in the Room” Issue, Its Importance in Business & Especially in Startups

As a startup founder or company CEO, you hear all the time, “You want to hire people ‘smarter than you’”, and you also hear, “Don’t be the smartest person in the room.” But what does this really mean and why is it important? I think the easiest way to explain this is by looking at a specific example.

Being One of the Smartest People on the Planet, and Not Needing to be the Smartest Person in the Room

When I was interviewing for the CEO job at Entropic Communications, I met with the founding CEO, Itzhak Gurantz, who is a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, is 10 years older than me, and had started two companies. Prior to starting his first company, ComStream, Itzhak was one of the top technical people at Linkabit, where he worked for Dr. Andrew Viterbi and Dr. Irwin Jacobs, the co-founders of Qualcomm. As I hear the stories from former Linkabit employees, Itzhak was one of Dr. Viterbi’s go-to guys when it came to the most difficult technical issues. Itzhak is also a super creative, inquisitive, and very likable. I met Itzhak about 10 years before I interviewed for the Entropic job, and I remembered that I was very impressed by him. He “got it”. And so many people really don’t get it. As I stared to work with Itzhak after joining Entropic, I noticed that he would come up with new ideas on a regular basis that were good enough on their own to start separate companies from! I remember a story I had heard about Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems. He would come up with an idea every week that you could start a company around. Itzhak is like that.

Now there is no way that I can be smarter than Dr. Itzhak Gurantz. It just isn’t possible. But the most special thing about Itzhak is that he is not only brilliant, he is collaborative in his style, very humble, and just a great person. He understands the areas where he has expertise, and he understands the areas where he doesn’t. He doesn’t have a NEED to always be right, the so-called “smartest person in the room.” In fact, even though Itzhak is a brilliant communications engineer, there were people at Entropic that Itzhak thought were more knowledgeable about communications engineering that he was.

The Negative Connotation of Being the Smartest Person in the Room

As Confucius said, “If you are the smartest person in the room, then you are in the wrong room.”  I’m an engineer, and I graduated at the top of my class at Georgia Tech, one of the top engineering universities in the world. I’ve worked in technology companies my entire career, and in Silicon Valley a good portion of that time. However, I have met and worked with many brilliant people, many of whom are engineers that are WAY smarter and more creative in their area of expertise than I ever have been, or ever could be.  They may not have the overall business knowledge about running technology companies that I possess from decades of experience, but they are smarter in many ways.

Being the Smartest Person in the Room is about NEEDING to be the smartest person in the room, under pretty much all circumstances. It is the need to ALWAYS be right. This person needs to ALWAYS have the last word. They must feel superior to the other people in the room. It is usually the result of someone with a huge ego and an inferiority complex. Trust me, these two characteristics may seem contradictory, but they can easily exist in the same person. You can have a massive ego and still have low self-esteem. I actually see it pretty often.

It is hard for “the smartest person in the room” issue to exist in a company if the culprit isn’t pretty smart, at least in some area. If they weren’t bright, articulate and dominant, they would be completely discounted by the group in most good companies.

This issue sometimes happens when someone is really smart or maybe even brilliant in one area, and they thus think they are brilliant in ALL areas. They typically have some importance of status in the organization.  I like to call this “transference of credentials”. I can’t take credit for that term since I heard it from one of my CFOs, but it is a spot-on description.

Another common way for this to issue to occur is based on status or position. It goes like this: “Since I am your boss, I am smarter than you. So shut-up and listen to what I’m saying, and listen carefully.”  Don’t be that person!

How Do You Avoid Being the Smartest Person in the Room

In order to not be the so-called “smartest person in the room”, ironically you actually have to be very smart, at least about something, you need to be savvy, and you have to know there are people smarter than you about a great number of things. In order to make the best decisions, you need to have input from others. I heard one time, even if you are the smartest person in a room, you are not as smart as the collective knowledge and wisdom of the rest of the people in the room.  Usually in a business setting, if you’ve invited the right people to a meeting, they are actually the smartest people in the room around something specific and important to the decision at hand. You should take full advantage of that.  Some of the best ways to avoid “the smartest person in the room” issue are:

  • Don’t think and feel that you always need to be right.
  • Surround yourself with smart people that you respect.
  • Hire and cultivate domain experts.
  • Hire and cultivate technology experts that are critical to your core competencies.
  • Hire people that are book smart, street smart, and people smart. They don’t necessarily have to be all of these, but they should at least be one of these things.
  • Shut-up and listen.
  • Don’t stifle others or cut them off, especially if you are in a position of authority. However, sometimes you have to shut someone off if they are dominating a conversation, steamrolling over others, and are way off track in the topic at hand. Use your judgment.
  • Be humble.
  • Listen as if you didn’t know the answer already.
  • Participate in “brainstorming” sessions where you allow the free-flow of ideas without any judgment.
  • Try to get everyone at the meeting to contribute something. Draw-out the people that are smart but more introverted.
  • If you are the CEO, don’t feel the need to attend every meeting.  Let the team drive some decisions.
  • Again, don’t think and feel that you always need to be right.

The Difference Between Decision-Making and being the Smartest Person in the Room

In companies, and in life, decisions need to be made. In startups in particular, speed of decision-making is one of the most important competitive advantages that you have. I don’t think you should sacrifice quality of decision-making for speed, but at the same time you don’t want to be the victim of “analysis paralysis”, or suffer from fear of making the wrong decision. Not making a decision is, in fact, making a decision. In a startup, you need to have a bias toward action, and willingness to course correct along the way.  To learn more about decision improvement in a startup, see Key Benefits of Executive Coaching.

As the CEO of a company, there are situations where the company needs your leadership, and the team needs you to make a decision. Making decisions based on a combination of your own insights, intelligence, and gut feeling, along with input from others, is different than being the smartest person in the room.

Someone needs to make a decision, and there isn’t always unanimity or even consensus. Leaders are willing to make decisions. Sometimes these decisions will be unpopular. Sometimes people won’t agree with your decision. You need to work hard to bring the team along with you in decisions, and at a minimum get people to “disagree and commit”. If they can’t, and it is a critical decision for the company, then you may need to take other actions.

Having been the CEO of a few companies now, in a typical one-hour meeting, I’m the actual “smartest person” between zero and five minutes. And sometimes that is even too long!  As a leader, you need to ask tough questions and really listen to the answers. You can’t learn anything new when you are talking. At the same time, you need to be willing, as a leader, to make tough and sometimes unpopular decisions. If you have earned the respect of your team, they will understand, even if they don’t always agree with the decision.

Now, when it comes to decision-making, It is important to have a different style when you are “building new houses” versus when your “house is on fire”, and you are trying to put it out.  There is a different sense of urgency, and a different necessity for decision-making speed. However, don’t use the “disaster urgency” as an excuse to unilaterally make decisions all the time.  This is just poor judgement and likely poor time management.  See Steven Covey’s book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, to see what I mean by time management in this context.

In order to avoid being the “smartest person in the room”, check your ego at the door, be vigilant, stay humble, listen to others, and treat others with dignity and respect. That is the solution to this particular issue.

What’s been your experience with “the smartest person in the room” issue?  We’d love to hear from you and get your perspective.

This is Patrick Henry, CEO of QuestFusion, with The Real Deal…What Matters.