The Geniuses Around Me

james helms
Intuit Engineering
4 min readFeb 4, 2022

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All around me are smart people. Especially at Intuit. We make sure of that when we identify, interview, and ultimately hire folks. Every one of them offers something unique — something that’s rare, valuable, and makes them an incredible addition to my team.

Speaking of teams, I have a few. There’s my Senior Leadership Team — those who are co-responsible for making the decisions that keep our business a viable financial and technological contributor to the Intuit ecosystem. There’s the Design Leadership Team, responsible for setting the vision and guiding the mission of design. Overseeing the management and celebrating the promotion of design talent across our global company. There’s My Design Organization, a sharp collection of leaders, managers, designers, and creative folks of all stripes who use their skills to identify and solve wicked customer problems with equal measures of art and science. Are there geniuses in there? Absolutely. On every team.

My definition of genius may differ slightly from yours. “Next-level intelligence.” “Empathetically gifted.” “Innately able to sweat the details in one particular place, AND at scale.” “A creator and perpetuator of belief.” I have these, on every team. Most likely you do too. Especially if you’re looking for it, asking for it, and creating space for it. As a leader, a teammate, or just as a human who wants to see fellow humans succeed.

Having read, re-read, workshopped, and put into practice a few of the more important principles of Multipliers, by Liz Wiseman, I’ve spent a lot of time squinting at the folks on my teams — looking for and naming geniuses. It’s a habit everyone should practice.

Uncovering Genius

Genius can take many forms. Storytelling Genius. Creative Genius. Problem-solving Genius. Critical-thinking Genius. Unleash-the-collective Genius. Empathetic Genius. Process Genius. Pattern-recognition Genius.

That moment may take the form of feedback that sounds like “You know what you’re good at…?” Or “Hey — I noticed you do this a lot — is that something that you like doing?” But for me, it actually starts by squinting at each person and asking— “What is this person‘s inner genius?” Being curious about what fuel burns brightest in my coworkers’ hearts is one of the best ways to unleash that passion and talent.

Coaching Genius

I love that YouTube moment of Steve Kerr coaching Steph Curry: “I wish I had your confidence.” Confidence is a kind of genius — one that, for Curry, results in 3-point superhero skills. On that court, he is a genius. Reading players, vectors, distance — creating perfect ball trajectory, but also maintaining clear, confident focus in the face of physical and emotional intensity. His impact is not just that of a single great player. He unlocks the whole team. With leadership, with belief, with skill. He is “the whole package.” And he makes it look easy. Genius.

Steve Kerr can see it. Marvel at it. He doesn’t have to HAVE it, himself —but rather name it, encourage it, fan the flame. This is why coaching is so vital. Many times, the coach sees something the player cannot. The coach is in a position to see possibilities where a player might be overwhelmed by limitations. The coach can recenter on strengths, goals, opportunities.

With my own teams, trust is a key to uncovering the untapped genius within. Understanding where they come from, experiences they’ve had, and the kind of struggles that made them who they are. Trust leads to vulnerability: what are their personal challenges, goofy dreams, irrational fears? Trust unlocks authenticity. One’s authentic self is where genius lies.

Focusing Genius

Are people born with genius? That depends on your definition, but I’d say probably not. Because genius lives at the intersection of authenticity, motivation, and outcomes. Some may make it look easy, but that doesn’t mean it flows through them. It certainly doesn’t mean it gives them energy. They may be “unaware.” Piling work onto the back of an unwitting genius — or an unwilling genius — can backfire. Missing someone’s potential because you focus on their aptitude is a common mistake. That’s why understanding someone’s goals are, in my experience, more important than seeing their talents.

  1. Be curious. Start with their story. Go deep. Develop trust. Understand motivations beyond “making money” and “being successful”. Build connections. Point out successes and things that seem easy, effortless, or particularly meaningful. Were they?
  2. Name it. There is power in naming genius. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Once people see/hear/learn they are effective, impactful, and recognized, they have a place to focus their efforts and energy.
  3. Feed it. As a coach, give that genius space to develop. Point it at your biggest challenges. Consider ways you can leverage genius to address areas of weakness. In their personal performance and for your team.
  4. Re-evaluate. After a period of time, ask questions like: “Has this been impactful? Are you still feeling it?” There’s plenty to learn from focusing genius — and sometimes that means being wrong. We are all “products” — products develop with use and feedback.

So here are a few things to consider:

Uncovering genius is itself, a kind of genius. It takes curiosity. It takes the belief that there’s always something worth finding. It takes persistence. It requires practice.

I’ve found that practicing by coaching people outside my teams — especially with early-career designers who are just forming their design identity — forces me to maintain a curious mindset. Curiosity is the path to empathy. And trust. And ultimately authenticity.

Not all genius is work-related. You may find that your coworkers’ genius actually currently lies in something they do outside of work. The more you learn about your colleagues’ whole selves, the better.

Seeing aptitude without understanding your colleagues’ goals can create a mismatch of expectations that actually creates burnout. Continue to check in with your team to understand if you're feeding them fuel or just loading them down with baggage.

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james helms
Intuit Engineering

Design Leader, Advisor, Speaker, Student, Advocate, Enabler.