Bottom Line Inc

Never Be the Smartest One in the Room


When I was in my early 30s, I interviewed someone in her 50s to work for me in customer service and product fulfillment. She was one of the best in the industry and knew far more about fulfillment operations than I did…or ever would, for that matter. While perfect for the job, I had one concern, and so I asked, “How would you feel about reporting to someone significantly younger and less knowledgeable than you?” Her answer, “I have no problem with it. You are so smart about your business and areas beyond the tasks that I will be performing.” And thus started a beautiful union of mutual respect that lasted for many years. It also demonstrates a critically important business (and life) lesson—never be the smartest one in the room…and, at the same time, never be afraid not to be the smartest one in the room.

Nothing illustrates this philosophy more than the monthly dinners we at Bottom Line Inc. hold with our contributing experts. Each month, my sister, Margie Abrams, Bottom Line’s chief content officer, and I invite 18 experts for an evening of information- and thought-sharing. As our readers know, our experts are exemplary in their fields. At the start of the dinner, we read each attendee’s bio so that everyone in the room knows who else is there. Inevitably, some humble guest will remark how intimidated he or she is by the lengthy list of awards and accomplishments attributed to one guest after another. Talk about potential for intimidation. These are the top medical researchers, financial thinkers, business strategists, security experts, etc. You name the topic, and we have an expert…and I (or my sister) have to lead this group in an intelligent and provocative discussion. By the end of the evening, we have pages of notes filled with story ideas, and even though it has been a long night, our minds are busy processing the education we just received.

Choosing an environment where you can learn is not just about the workplace. When helping our children select colleges, my husband and I pointed out that it’s not just the classroom learning that they are going for. It’s also the people they will be surrounding themselves with both inside and outside the classroom. Of course, the professors will teach…but then there are friends. College offers exposure to new people and new ideas, and hopefully the opportunity to develop friendships with people who help you discover worlds you might not get to know on your own. The same holds true when picking a life partner—one of the things I love most about my husband is that he is constantly reading and somehow always knows how to do anything. We have different interests and different strengths, which means that we get to alternate learning and teaching.

Mind you, smart comes in all shapes and sizes. Of course, there is book smart—that person who is a walking encyclopedia…the one you want on your Trivial Pursuit team because he or she knows all the answers.

And then there are smart friends who have unique talents. Almost all of my friends are better cooks than I am, and after years of allowing them to help me in the kitchen, I now can prepare a carefully selected menu for a dinner party with relative ease and confidence. Athletes like to develop their skills with people who are better than them in order to raise their performance bar.

The concept of surrounding yourself with great people is not complex or new. However, because of the “busy-ness of life,” it is easy to become aligned with safe spaces and comfortable with the status quo. It’s fine. It’s easy. It’s known. But is it getting you where you want to go?

I recently produced a series of video interviews with Dr. Barry Franklin, director of the cardiac rehabilitation program and exercise laboratories at William Beaumont Hospital and the author of the GPS for Success program. One of the videos was on just this topic—surrounding yourself with great people is the key to success. In the video, Dr. Franklin uses the example of Steven Spielberg referring to George Lucas as the person who makes him great. We all have the opportunity to surround ourselves with our own George Lucases.

When you look around different rooms at the people you are spending your time with, are they teaching you? Helping you? Inspiring you? If not, then you may want to try a different room.

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