Stop trying to be the smartest person in the room
By Adil Wali , 12th Jan 2011

One of the most interesting things about hiring extremely talented people is that they, often times, have extremely large egos that come along with their talent.  Working on building a rapidly growing company has certainly opened my eyes to this interesting new reality.  I’ve been thinking a lot about how to coach around these kinds of characteristics recently.  While I am sure that I don’t have a perfect answer, I feel like I am getting closer, and and learning a lot about myself in the process.

The core message that I think its important to send to talented new employees:

Stop trying to be the smartest person in the room.

I have so many employees that I wish would just listen to the advice above.  The reality is that they are supremely talented.  We knew that when we hired them.  That’s why they were hired into the first place.  Startups are selective.  That’s part of laying a foundation for excellence.  Unlike in big companies, there really is no place for mediocrity to hide in a small, high-performing organization.  The first thing that new employees have to understand is that we are already recognize their talent.

We have so many wickedly talented employees.  Part of this may be a poor reflection on me, to be honest.  It’s possible that so many employees are trying to ‘show off their brilliance’ because I am not doing a good enough job of recognizing it.  I’ll be the first one to call myself out on this.  (Maybe the second or the third..)

Entrepreneur: Tell your smart people how smart they are.

As an entrepreneur, I operate with a (un)healthy sense of dissatisfaction nearly all the time.  This is something that bleeds into my management style, whether I want it to or not.  I probably shouldn’t be doing it, but I can’t help myself.  I am always upset about something.  I fear that this style is great for starting a business but not necessarily running a business.

It turns out that being recognized for doing good work is something that matters to people who produce good work. This jives intuitively for a lot of reasons.  People who are high-performers are usually used to being high performers.  And, whether we like it or not, the American education system is sort of big on ensuring that people have a sense of where they stand.  (Or at least they did where I went to school!)  The people I knew were always pretty keenly aware of their GPA, rank in class, etc.  So, it’s safe to say that at least some high-performers are used to being recognized, and are no strangers to being competitive.

The hardest part, I think, for most entrepreneurs and leaders is this: one of the reasons they have gotten to where they are is because they are always striving for more.  They are always a little-bit (if not very) dissatisfied.  Typically, this is an internally focused feeling.  I am generally pretty unhappy with myself, my performance, or some previous action that I could have handled better.  Historically, I have tried to ensure that I don’t demonstrate that sense of unhappiness with other people.  It’s typically not about them.

Here’s where it goes wrong: most good leaders and entrepreneurs have a strong sense of ownership.   It gets easy to be unhappy when something doesn’t go well in the organization.  And because you feel a sense of ownership for your team/group/organization, that feeling of dissatisfaction is not just about you anymore.  It’s about wanting more for your organization and the people around you.  The people around you can sense this dissatisfaction, and they often take it personally!

Part of growing up is not being ‘about you’ anymore

I am not going to lie.  I was a spoiled kid.  I was a ‘surprise,’ so my brother and sister were a lot older than me, and took me under their wings as a second set of parents.  I had no shortage of getting what I wanted.  As a youngster, I sort of got used to the whole world being about me.  So you can imagine my shock when I went to school for the first time, only to learn that there were other kids who needed attention too.

Turns out that your ‘business growing up’ is an awful lot like ‘you growing up’. .  In the early days, whether you are starting a company or building a small team within a larger organization, nearly everything is about you.  Its about your effort, your vision, your passion, your hard work, etc etc.  But when you start staffing great people to help you make the vision a reality, it stops being about you and starts to be about the people around you.

I wish I knew this earlier…

One of the things I have seen a lot in myself and the entrepreneurs around me is a constant battle with this concept.  Learning to focus more on the people around you than on yourself is a lot easier said than done.  I suspect that many of us simply choose not to because the transition isn’t always fun or easy.  I think, ultimately, this is one of the core factors that influences whether or not entrepreneurs can scale into successful leaders.  And if you really want your organization to be a huge success, then you need to ensure that your leadership team is good at this.    Even if that means that you need to get out of the way…

About the Author

Hi, I’m Adil Wali. I became a Microsoft certified professional at age 14 and started my first web development company. That led to a career as a serial entrepreneur, advisor, and startup investor. I got my first “real job” at 33, and I’m now a FinTech executive with a passion for the markets.