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It's safe to hire people smarter than you

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Legendary ad man David Ogilvy once advised his fellow business leaders to "Hire people who are better than you are, then leave them to get on with it."

While many managers have long shared this belief, others have questioned its wisdom. Why should you hire people who are smarter than you? Wouldn't they actually be a threat to your job?

Simply put, no. A good leader will surround themselves with the best and the brightest to bring even greater success to a company or project. Elizabeth Kelley, an organizational behaviour professor at Dalhousie University, recently explained in the Financial Post why cosying up to smart individuals is a mark of strong leadership and big-picture thinking.

"The most popular leadership style, transformational leadership, is actually based in part on optimally using the intelligence of your followers, rather than supposing you have all the answers yourself," Kelley said in the interview.

In other words, surrounding yourself with smart people makes you smarter because it creates an environment that enables you to feed off of one another's intelligence, ideas and energy. Other reasons to hire those who are smarter than you:

It frees up more of your time. If your employees are more technically competent than you or have more expertise in a certain area, then you are more likely to trust them to carry out their tasks independently. It's a win-win; they get the freedom to do the job they've been hired to do, you get more freedom to work on the things you enjoy doing.

It ensures quality remains high. Handing over your current duties to an incompetent person would surely create an obvious difference in the quality of work, which would ultimately affect productivity and customer relations. But delegating to someone of equal or greater expertise will ensure quality remains high regardless of whether you are handling the duty yourself.

It brings in fresh perspectives. When the boss is the smartest person in the company, it can create groupthink or squash new ideas, causing things to go stagnant. But when new talent brings in unique experiences, skills and suggestions, it can stimulate productivity and boost the value of your organization.

It introduces more options. Hiring someone who has deeper experience and a wider skill set will almost always result in a better organization. You will immediately benefit from their expertise as they enhance or even expand your company with new ideas, new markets, new customers and a new way of doing things.

It creates efficiency. The math is simple. Hiring people who immediately know what to do means you spend less time coaching them -- and because they do quality work, you spend less money fixing their mistakes.

Successful managers who realize these benefits have a big competitive edge over those who refuse to hire people whose knowledge, skills or creativity exceed their own.

Leaders who insist on being the sharpest pencil in the box are afraid to admit that they have any flaws or deficiencies at all, which often leads to their downfall. This attitude not only inhibits the manager's growth as a leader, it damages their company's bottom line, prevents succession planning and stifles their team.

When they can't let go, managers can be a source of great frustration for employees -- not only because they don't get out of the way, but because they get so wrapped up in day-to-day work that they can't set strategic direction or allow others to excel. This lack of leadership and opportunities for career growth will inevitably cause talented people to jump ship.

Instead, managers should be able to take their eyes off their own goals and focus instead on the good of the organization, which includes upgrading the workforce with team members who are better at certain tasks. That kind of thinking requires a brave, creative, and yes, smart leader.

As businessman RH Grant once said, "When you hire people that are smarter than you are, you prove you are smarter than they are."

-- With reporting by Barbara Chabai

John McFerran, PhD, F.CHRP, is managing director of Boyden Global Executive Search. He can be contacted at


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 20, 2010 I2

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