The Smartest Kid In the Class

If you’re the smartest kid in the class, you’re in the wrong class. That is if you want to grow. I’m not sure who first made the comment about surrounding yourself with people who are smarter than you but they sure were smart. The easiest way to grow as a person and as a leader is to surround yourself with people who know more than you do. In his famous book about the richest men in the world called Think And Grow Rich, Napoleon Hill wrote about Henry Ford, “Any man is educated who knows where to get knowledge when he needs it, and how to organize that knowledge into definite plans of action.” He was talking about the fact that Henry Ford had smart people around him.

David Ogilvy, widely revered as a founding father of modern advertising (and founder of one of its most famous agencies), is reputed to have once presented each of his board directors with a set of Russian dolls. When they opened the dolls, the smallest had a piece of folded paper inside on which Ogilvy had written: ”If you always hire people who are smaller than you, we shall become a company of dwarfs. If, on the other hand, you always hire people who are bigger than you, we shall become a company of giants.”

One Example

Several years ago I sat in on a meeting of the division presidents of a large national company with their CEO. The CEO was also the founder of the company.  He had started two other companies and had sold them both making many of his team millionaires. His reputation preceded him but this company was in an industry that was new to him. What I observed was interesting. Whenever the CEO said something or made a point all the division presidents nodded their heads like a group of bobblehead dolls, except one. That guy spoke his mind and if he disagreed with the CEO, he said so. “That won’t work,” he blurted out in one case. He went on to explain why. “That’s not what this customer is looking for,” he said another time.

The outspoken division president had spent years in the industry that was new to the CEO. He knew the business. The CEO recognized the value of that president’s expertise and soon after that meeting elevated him to a position of leadership nearer the CEO so he could more readily benefit from it.

The Point

I’ve been writing about personal growth over the last several weeks. If you have a fragile ego or something to prove to someone then this post isn’t for you. This post is for people who realize that they don’t know everything and can’t do everything but still want to be successful or even significant. Those are the people who want to grow, who want to increase their influence.

If you’re one of those people then it should make sense to you to surround yourself with people who are smarter than you and better than you.  That’s a growth environment. A growth environment like that will do at least three things for you.

  1. It will keep you challenged – challenges keep us engaged and, like in any physical training, we gain strength by doing a little more each time.
  2. It will keep you focused forward – you can’t drive a car looking in the rearview mirror or you’ll crash. A growth environment will keep you driving with your eyes on the road ahead.
  3. It will keep you out of your comfort zone – I recently heard John Maxwell speak on personal growth. He said, “Everything you want or need is outside your comfort zone.”

When I interview candidates for certain jobs I like to ask this question, “Could you tell me about a time when you were asked to do something you didn’t know how to do?” I’ve heard answers like, “I didn’t do it,” or “I don’t do anything I’m not trained to do.” I didn’t hire those people. I’m looking for people with the drive and ingenuity to find solutions. When they say, “I found someone who knows how to do it and asked them,” or “I found the procedure manual or I googled it until I knew what I was doing,” that’s when I believe I have someone who is in a growth mindset.  Those are the people I want to hire.

Take a look around you, at your colleagues and friends. Are they ahead of you, next to you, or behind you? If they’re all next to you and behind you, you need to find some new colleagues and friends. Put yourself in a growth environment.

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