People often ask me how I was able to make my last business successful. What special skills and capabilities did I bring to the table? How was I able to make the Inc 500 list for several years and manage continued fast growth?

Having a big ego definitely wasn’t the skill that made it happen. So what was?

For corporate leadership, I was good at finding people far smarter and experienced than myself, and then I listened to what they had to say.

Groupthink, and the opportunity to have others evaluate, give me feedback, and tweak my smartness and stupidity as I built strategy – and executed on it – was the only reason I was successful.

Notice that there are three parts to the above statement. Three very important parts that need to be in sync for it all to work.

I was very good at finding people

far smarter and

experienced than myself, and then

I listened to what they had to say.

Woo Hoo. Three Parts. So What?

Each statement means nothing on its own.

If you hire smart and experienced people but don’t listen to them, you’re greatly limiting your opportunity for success.

If you hire people who “haven’t been there and done that”, or just don’t “get it”, and then take their advice, you could be headed for failure as easily as greatness.

I’ve seen both happen on a regular basis.

In addition, note that I said “smarter and experienced”.

Intelligence without experience means they still have to go through the process of learning what works and what doesn’t. They have to have both succeeded and failed (as an aside, I generally think failure is a far better life lesson than success).

Similarly, experience on its own doesn’t signify that you can understand the “why” of success – what did you do to actually make success happen.

It’s Not Just About The CEO

Each leadership level should employ these same tenets. Especially in a small business where the actions of a single individual can be greatly amplified.

I get managers that take me aside and bluntly exclaim, “If I hire people smarter and more experienced, they will be promoted over me.”

My response? Yes, that’s always a risk.

But leadership isn’t about knowing everything about everything.

Leadership is about evaluating knowledge and ideas. It’s about the application of knowledge and innovation to make an organization successful. Leadership is about nurturing those around you to support a shared vision and driving them towards it. Leadership is about making those around you better, and making the company better as a result.

And if a manager is successful at this, they should be recognized by their managers and the company leadership as being ripe for a bigger role – one where they have the opportunity to influence a broader cross section of the company.

Be Careful When You Hire

Most small businesses don’t have formal hiring practices that truly vet potential influencers in their organization for their intelligence and their experience. They don’t necessarily check references. They don’t do personality profiling or intelligence testing. They don’t have a set of questions that both quantitatively evaluate candidates from an experience and brightness level in addition to the standard qualitative questions.

Most of the hiring is done based on how they “feel” about the person across the table from them.

As in the rest of business, you need to move away from emotional leanings during the interview process and ask the candidate to walk you through:

  • What they have done. For example, asking a sales manager to fully describe a sales compensation plan they have developed, why they developed it that way and what the results were.
  • Cognitive questions. What are three ways to improve the wheel?
  • Situational/simulation questions. Sell me this pen.

You’re looking for outside the box answers (not to be confused with stupid answers) to the cognitive and situational questions. The more outside the box answers tend to signify intelligence and creativity.

These questions, combined with testing – personality profiles and cognitive ability tests – will build a much better picture of whether a candidate is appropriate for a role.

So the next time you hire someone in a leadership role, make sure that they are smart, make sure they know more than you do, make sure they have experienced more than you have, and – most importantly – make sure you listen to them.

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Chris is currently the Chief Innovation Officer at Internet Marketing Ninjas where he manages M&A activity, legal work, and also focuses on the use of technology and other solutions to lead innovation and growth. Prior to this, Chris led the sale of his $10mil information technology company, twice an Inc500 fastest growing company in the US, to an investment banking firm in NYC. He has a strong passion for sailing, and had the opportunity to spend two years travelling from Lake Champlain to the southern Bahamas and back with his family.

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