The Smartest Person in the Room

Your ability to be the smartest person in the room is highly dependent on your willingness to be the dumbest person in the room.

Note: The rooms in these two situations are typically not the same room!

In public work life, I often feel bemused by the amount of attention I get for my achievements. While I intellectually understand it, emotionally, it feels unwarranted.

The outside world sees how I spend 10% of my time. The other 90% of the time I often spend being the dumbest person in the room.

Publicly, I’m seen as a teacher. Privately, I see myself as a student because I spend a lot more of my time and energy learning rather than teaching.

When I take on new CEO clients, I often assess whether they’re the smartest person in their company or one of the “dumbest.”

The vast majority of the time, they’re the smartest.

This is a sure sign that they have not done a good job recruiting an executive team.

A really great CEO is the dumbest person in the room during an executive team meeting. As a CEO, you want your head of sales to be infinitely stronger in sales than you. You want your CFO to be infinitely more experienced in finance than you. You want your general counsel to be far more competent in the law than you.

If you’re always the smartest person in the room, you need to find a new room to hang out in!

When I first started working at McKinsey, wow, it was a humbling experience. That year, McKinsey rejected 98.5% of Stanford undergraduates who applied. The bar was very, very high.

My very first manager was a woman named Jane Fraser.

She was the first to teach me how to do segmentation analysis. (Last month, Jane became the first woman CEO of Citibank and the first woman CEO of a major Wall Street investment bank.)

Yeah... I was the “dumb” one in that work relationship… but boy, did I learn a lot in those first few weeks.

A year later, one of my colleagues was Ryan Schneider. I remember that he made some insightful observations and revealed second- and third-order implications of those insights. I remember that, for the life of me, my brain could not keep up and process what he was saying.

I understood the words. I understood the concepts. I simply could not keep up with how quickly he was connecting the dots on two seemingly different ideas that were very related.

I remember an hour later in the hallway saying to myself, “Ohhhh… I get it now.”

Today, Ryan Schneider is the CEO of the Fortune 500 company Realogy. It is the parent company of U.S. real estate brokerage brands Century 21, Coldwell Banker, Sotheby’s Realty, and many more. It brings in $6 billion in revenue.

I was the “dumb” one in those meetings too. Again, I sure did learn a lot in those meetings. Ryan taught me about cross-subsidies (e.g., selling one product at break-even to make money on a wildly profitable cross-sell).

It's worthwhile to ask yourself: “How often am I the dumbest person in the room? How often am I the smartest?” You learn more in the former; you earn more in the latter (in the short run).

However, in the long run, the two are related. The more you learn (and apply what you learn to achieve results), the more you earn in the long run. It’s a delicate but highly strategic balance.

There is not always a right or wrong answer in terms of what “room” you should be in.

The most important thing is to make deliberate choices about what kind of room you want to be in, why you want to be in that room, and when it makes sense to do so.

If you don’t have deliberate or thoughtful intentions, momentum tends to make those decisions for you. Sometimes, momentum works in your favor by coincidence. (If so, recognize that you got lucky and make the most of it.)

Other times, momentum puts you in a “room” that doesn’t serve you well. In that case, recognize it, decide where you would rather be, and develop a plan to get out of the “room” that doesn’t serve you and into one that does.

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