Never Be the Smartest Guy in the Room

How to Spot People Better Than You

By Published on .

Phil Johnson
Phil Johnson
The writer Norman Mailer ("Armies of the Night," "Executioner's Song") made the point that there's only one character that an author can't write and that's a character that's smarter than the writer. We're all bounded by the limits of our own brains. So it's interesting that one of the most sacred tenets of being a good boss is to hire people smarter or more talented than yourself. You need skill and courage to take that directive seriously.

Not withstanding the line "I just surround myself with good people" that executives humbly use to explain their success, it's tricky and intimidating to identify people that may surpass you. No one wants to be second best, or admit that they're not the brightest point of light. Then there's the challenge of actually knowing when someone is smarter than you.

I'm not talking about finding people who can do things that you can't. Account people know they need creative people. Creative people know they need developers. We can all admit that we can't fix our own cars and that the plumber knows more about the pipes than we do. I'm talking about finding people who are better at what you do best. Now that's threatening. But it's the smartest survival strategy for an agency leader whether he or she is a creative director, account director, or CEO.

There are obvious risks. You can make yourself obsolete. You might introduce competition for your own job. Worse yet, you may lose some of your star power. My stock expression at the office is that I take care of my ego at home (although teenage boys challenge that assumption), and I go to work to build a successful company. But it still hurts to see my ideas tossed on the agency trash pile. You've got to take these risks or you'll stagnate and become a one-trick agency that will never grow beyond the limits of the top guy's ideas and judgment.

I've got a theory, and I'm curious what you think. I believe that most of us can spot someone who is a little better than ourselves, but it's really hard to spot talent and brains that are a lot better. First, there's the intimidation factor. We just don't understand those people. Their ideas seem alien to the world we know. The next time you get that sense from somebody, stop and take a second look. Of course, they might be insane, but they might also be what you need. For the brave of heart, transcend your own limits and take a chance on someone who can blow open your thinking in entirely new ways.

My own greatest fear is to be the limiting factor in the growth of PJA Advertising. Fortunately, just about everyone in the agency will tell you with conviction that they're smarter than me. Here's a checklist for how I find them:

Look for people who have accomplished a goal, or solved a problem, that you personally aspired to achieve and couldn't. Make them tell you how they did it.

Put your own convictions and beliefs on the table. Ask them to convince you of something new or, better yet, to change your perspective.

Find out their sources. What do they read? Who do they admire? Where do they look for inspiration? I like to see people making connections that would never cross my mind.

Do they dazzle you? Do they make your brain work harder? Do they help you see things that you couldn't see before? If you're afraid that they might leave you in the dust, this could be a good sign.

I've made the mistake of finding spectacular talent and then boxing them in. If someone thinks differently than you, they probably work differently too. You've got to let them revise the rules and change the system. There will be nail-biting moments when you don't quite get it, or know that it will work. The culture will inevitably shift. Sometimes, there may be spectacular disasters. Those are the risks you take when you want to become better than you are today.

Nobody should aspire to be the smartest person in the room. First of all, if you think you are, you're probably not. And if by some chance you really are, you've got the hardest job in the world because no one can do much to help you. In his memoir "Open," Andre Agassi made a wonderful point about his long-standing rivalry with Pete Sampras. Agassi observed that without Sampras as a rival he might have had a better record, but that the competition with Sampras made him a better tennis player. Being pushed to new heights should be what we all want, whether you're a junior copywriter, or the CEO.

Phil Johnson is CEO of PJA Advertising & Marketing with offices in Cambridge and San Francisco. Follow Phil on Twitter: @philjohnson
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