The Benefits of NOT Being the Smartest Person in the Room

Back when I was in business school at UNC Kenan-Flagler, I distinctly remember one day heading over to my locker to put away some of my gear.  Kneeling on the floor, next to my locker was one of my classmates and she had her head in hands, crying.  She had just gotten a C on an exam and it was the first time in her life.  And she was crushed.  Understand that in most business schools we’re talking about an academically competitive environment.  The average GMAT score at UNC KFBS was about a 660+ and the very top MBA programs average close to 700.  We’re talking about a roomful of classmates that are EASILY qualified to be members of MENSA.  In some cases maybe ALL of your classmates are at that level of academic achievement. 

My classmate was one of the younger MBA students in the program (24) and after years of being the smartest kid in her class, didn’t feel so smart any more.  I re-assured her that we all felt the same way in B-school and it was absolutely nothing to be embarrassed about.  Maybe it was my real-world experience that taught me that brains aren’t everything and sometimes you’re blessed to be working with smarter people than yourself.  She wiped her tears away, picked herself back up and I know that she would become emotionally resilient and things would improve for her over the school year.  

My experience after business school has been interesting in the fact that sometimes I run into people that WANT to be the smartest person in the room.  Everything about their presentation and demeanor speaks to trying to project that aura.  These people are rarely the most effective members in the organization.  I consider it a case of ego over-riding effectiveness.  By believing that you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re rarely capable of listening to others, learning from others and improving yourself.  And it’s rare when an individual can drive an initiative without the help of teammates and ideas from their side. 

Some people say that if you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room!  And I’d have to agree because it means either you’re not going to grow in the organization and/or you’re unwilling to see the value in your teammates and learn from them.  And maximizing the value of your teammates is key to extremely effective organizations in today’s highly competitive world.  

In marketing where we are in the midst of working with many groups (Product Management, Sales, Creative, Finance, Customers) it’s really important to LISTEN, learn and lead with those around us.  We usually aren’t the smartest person in the room and that’s ok.  And if you are the smartest person in the room, you should still listen and learn.  Everyone knows a little more than you about something!  Teams that put their egos aside and collaborate effectively are often the most productive. For anyone not named Stephen Hawking, it’s probably in our best interest to NOT be the smartest person in the room.  


Ron Wen

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