By Sydney Finkelstein
together your team, you should look for the smartest people in the room, right?
Not so fast.
Intelligence is one of those
characteristics where there is a minimum level needed to be in the game. Once
past that, too much intelligence can be a drawback or worse.
The Enron management team, for example, were known as “the smartest
guys in the room.” Consider how well that turned out. The former US
energy trading company tapped its top talent to run some of its
most-profitable divisions, almost without supervision. The managers,
despite their smarts, were an arrogant, insecure bunch who took wild
chances and lost billions of dollars. The company dissolved in 2001.
The problem with really smart people is that they often think they know more than everyone else.
the job for which you’re hiring makes a difference. I do want big-time
intelligence for researchers, analysts, and coders, but you can lock
those folks in a room and let them do their thing because they work on
their own. If they lack emotional intelligence or interpersonal skills,
any damage they do is limited because of their independent work.
But do I really need to find the smartest managers?
The problem with smart people
problem with really smart people is that they often think they know
more than everyone else. Maybe they do. But that doesn’t help them when
they’re trying to get others to buy into whatever they’re selling. For
example, I was coaching one senior executive who always seemed to be one
step ahead of everyone else on her team. At least, that’s what she
thought. One of the biggest challenges she faced was recognising that
other managers didn’t necessarily view the world the same way. That
meant she needed to invest the time to bring them along if she wanted to
get traction on her preferred projects.
When you know the right answer, you often can’t believe that everyone else doesn’t just see the same thing, and fall into line.
organisations don’t work that way. Especially when working with peers
when you don’t have direct authority over them, the only way to get
momentum toward your preferred outcome is to sell them on the idea.
Imposing your “superior” solution just doesn’t work.
The irony is
that sometimes the most talented person can make for one of the most
ineffective managers. You can see this in sports, for example, where
retired superstars often find it difficult to coach or manage
successfully because they are now supervising lesser mortals that
weren’t blessed with the same degree of innate talent.
Gretzky, the Canadian hockey legend who retired with more personal
scoring records than anyone in the history of professional hockey, was
remarkably ineffective as a head coach. The same may be said about
Michael Jordan, perhaps the greatest basketball player ever, who has
never been able to lead a successful basketball organisation whether as
general manager, president or owner.
It could be just as bad when
we let the A-level crowd go to market with what they see as the best
product. I remember talking to managers at Singapore-based Creative
Technology, Inc after the iPod had just been introduced by Apple.
Creative had a technologically superior MP3 player, but customers
preferred the iPod, to the utter dismay of the Creative managers. They
just couldn’t understand how customers were so irrational!
But it turns out that the best technology doesn’t always win, just like the smartest people don’t always succeed.
not just brainpower where more may also not be better. For example, is
it good to keep reducing the time it takes for technicians to help
customers requesting assistance via call-in centres? What about the
quality of the advice, how the customer perceives the value of the
advice or even whether it’s such a great idea in the first place to try
to optimise on speed?
Zappos, the US-based online shoe store,
actually rewards employees for spending more time with customers who
call in with questions about products they are thinking of buying. For
Zappos, customer experience on a call trumps any simple metric that, in
its view, can actually detract from profitability.
are motivated to cycle through customers as fast as possible, platitudes
that the customer comes first are just that — empty, cynical slogans
that mean nothing to sales staff.
And let’s not forget the side
effect that accompanies this culture. People who really care about
service look elsewhere for work. That leaves demotivated employees who
actually do a good job of hitting their time targets. In the end, you
get what you want, but you lose because of un-nuanced thinking that more
is better than less.
Call it brilliantly fulfilling the wrong vision.
quest for more may well be the defining ethos of our time, but the
downside that comes with this single-minded fixation warrants greater
attention. Relying on the smartest and the most talented to lead and
manage people and teams may be one of those things that sounds a lot
better in theory than in practice.