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Are You The Smartest Person In The Room?

Warren Carter | 03.07.2018

How do you see yourself contrasted against your peers? Are you learning new things or feeling stagnant?

This question has been bantered about for many years and it seems no one knows who asked it first. The first variation I was exposed to was a summary of Michael Dell's (CEO of Dell Computer) commencement address to the 2003 graduating class at the University of Texas at Austin.

He was quoted as saying,

"Try never to be the smartest person in the room. And if you are, I suggest you invite smarter people… or find a different room."

Those looking to improve their career position would be wise to reflect on how they would answer this question.  Regardless of whether you're the most senior or the most junior person in your organization, if you are "that smart", it begs the question:  Why are you still there?

To continue growing in your career, as well as progressing in life, it's important to be around people that you can learn from.  If you are not being challenged, you will stagnate.  Success begets success.  Seek out those people that are more technologically advanced, more charismatic, more analytical and… yes - smarter than you are.  You will continue to develop your own knowledge base, experiential reference points and perspectives on what works and what doesn't.

Many years ago, amidst a difficult decision about engaging an external consultant, a mentor of mine posed a simple question that should have been obvious to me at the time:

"If you have to set out on a hazardous and unmarked voyage through a jungle, would you go it alone? Or would you hire a guide who had actually successfully made the journey themselves?"

Having this gentleman as a mentor to myself allowed for the perfect question that led to a wise choice and a positive outcome.  The point is that by surrounding yourself with the more knowledgeable and experienced, you can learn from their successes and failures versus repeating the same mistakes that they did.

It's hard to debate this question without considering the factor that emotional intelligence (EI) plays in the equation.  One must also consider the narcissist. You know, the person who congratulates themselves on being the best and brightest at everything they do?  This kind of person may have ego issues that block their ability to evolve beyond where they are.  While they may be smarter and more knowledgeable than you are, they most likely lack self-awareness and emotional intelligence which often limits their ability to leverage that knowledge and intellect for growth.

Emotionally intelligent people are willing to "not be right" when confronted with a challenge to their knowledge or experience.  They are usually self-aware enough to know that there are things they can learn from others.  They understand what triggers themselves and rather than getting defensive, they notice the body language and responses of others and can respond accordingly. By employing empathy and listening skills and letting go of "being right", the EI folks can be made aware of options they may not otherwise have.

As a general practice, we should look at others as a potential source of knowledge.  In some form or another, we all have something to offer someone else.  The self-aware teacher or leader with a healthy dose of humility understands this.  Teachers learn from students and executives learn things from the most junior employees.  The self-acknowledged "smartest person in the room" is more interested in the designation than growth.  

Who are you?

Warren Carter is the founder and a senior managing partner of The QualiFind Group. The QualiFind Group has been supporting the key talent needs of multinational organizations since 1999 to include organizational turnarounds, startups, expansions, and topgrading.  We serve client employers in the Americas and globally through our membership in the global alliance of IRC Global Executive Search Partners.  Warren also serves as a member of IRC's Executive Board.  He can be reached by phone at 619-921-1795.

Our retained executive search practice and our professional recruitment practice have been ranked as one of America's top search and recruitment firms by Forbes magazine for 2017 and 2018.