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Lead, Follow AND Get Out of the Way!

Smart managers hire smarter employees

Photo by Jehyun Sung on Unsplash

My last writing effort was about some of the key characteristics of “leadership.” I’ve read a lot of books over the past several years about being a leader. I have to admit, one of my favorites was by a U.S. Navy Seal named Jocko Willink, “Extreme Ownership.” Jocko (whom my son later met, which was cool) wrote about “owning your successes AND your failures.” That’s an important step, accepting responsibility and (as I may have mentioned once or twice in previous blogs) making new decisions.

Today, I’m thinking of a quote from Lee Iacocca, the former CEO of Chrysler Motors and the creator of the Ford Mustang (my favorite — and my first — car): “I hire people brighter than me and then I get out of their way.”

Actress Tina Fey also said, “In most cases, being a good boss means hiring talented people and then getting out of their way.”

Or perhaps you’d prefer a quote from Apple founder Steve Jobs: “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”

(Side note: Steve Jobs is becoming the “ Benjamin Franklin “ of our time; tons of witty quotes and sayings are now being attributed to Jobs, just as in the past when someone didn’t know the origin of a snappy quote, they would attribute it to Franklin!)

Hire better (than yourself)

The concept addressed by these quotes is a fundamental of management science: “Always hire people more qualified than you” or “Hire people who are smarter than you are,” and let them do what they do best.

One of my first and best bosses (Bruce Hays of Coulter Corporation, a brilliant guy) taught me this early on in my career. He repeated this concept often, advising me to “hire the best people possible.”

Of additional note, when I came to Bruce’s office and said, “Boss, we have a problem,” he would interrupt me and say, “No, you have an OPPORTUNITY to show me how great you are with problem-solving skills!”

Rats! That kind of put pressure back on me.

The concept, basically “hire the most brilliant, hard-working and amazing people you can find, and enable them so they can do their job well” seems fairly commonplace advice, doesn’t it?

So why do few people follow that advice? I’ve had a lengthy career, and I have seen more managers do the opposite of that advice than those who seem to follow it. I’ve seen terrible hire after terrible hire take place. Even when I was on the “interview assessment” slate, I would often be stunned by the hires made by upper management.

Why wouldn’t they hire really smart people? Why wouldn’t they hire people who could “fill in the gaps for them,” people who had knowledge that perhaps the manager didn’t possess? In fact, I often saw managers (let’s use that word for vice presidents, CEOs, assistant VPs, etc.) with a large group of “assistant managers” who were LESS knowledgeable than the manager. Why assemble a group of people who, in reality, can’t help you?

Get beyond insecurity

Why do many (if not most) managers surround themselves with people less qualified? I asked another good boss of mine that exact question. He smiled and said one word, “INSECURITY.”

He explained that, unfortunately, some managers don’t feel qualified to be where they are (sort of a “I don’t deserve this job” feeling), but even more managers don’t want to be “threatened.” They don’t want to hire someone smarter, more loquacious (wow! I’ve always wanted to use that word in a blog), or someone more capable of doing the job.

They are “insecure with themselves” — always worried that someone is out to take their job from them, that someone on their staff will show them up in a meeting or on a report. They are constantly paranoid about a colleague who might look as if they know more than the manager. So, they make sure they are always the smartest person in the room.

Now, in all fairness, it IS daunting to hire someone much smarter than you or more talented than you. We all have some concerns about looking foolish at work or being seen as “less competent” than others. It’s not an unusual reaction — self-preservation is a basic instinct.

But — it doesn’t make you a great leader (or a success!). Hiring less than the best puts you behind. It doesn’t help the company, and it won’t secure your position.

More than once in my career I’ve had to meet with a manager and ask them why they weren’t making the progress the company demanded of them. Many times in those meetings I’ve made them face the reality that they have the wrong staff to get the job done. They just didn’t have the talent-power to get things done. After all, as a boss, you’re only as successful as your team!

Just to make sure we’re on the same page — I’m not talking about intellect or demeaning anyone’s choices — I’m simply pointing out that great managers hire the best talent they can find, regardless of whether or not those hires might do a better job at many things compared to the manager.

Great managers lead when they need to lead, follow when they need to follow, and they get out of the way of their fantastic staff to let them do their jobs — and do them well.

Trust anyway

This all sounds obvious, doesn’t it? Well, it’s not. We have to learn to trust those who work for us and hire people we can trust.

Does that mean you’ll never have to worry? Of course not. I hired a close friend once who was tremendously well-qualified. Bright, imaginative, and quite the motivating speaker. It made my job much easier — that is, until my friend went to my boss and explained how he could do my job faster/better/cheaper and, essentially, he stabbed me in the back.

It hurt — and sure, it made me nervous and insecure in the future — but I got over it, and today I have brilliant people who work for me and who do a fantastic job! Many of them do their jobs better than I could do them! So what helped me get over it? I once again had to face facts that I needed the best people for the job who could do the job so I could accomplish company goals with aplomb (wow, I’ve got the words going today, don’t I?).

So don’t be afraid to lead. Don’t hesitate to follow the best people. And don’t forget to get out of the way of your brilliant staff — you know, the ones YOU hired!

Mark S Long has long experienced the intricacies of business incubation, acceleration, coworking spaces, makerspaces and other entrepreneurial assistance venues. UF Innovate supports an innovation ecosystem that moves research discoveries from the lab to the market, making the world a better place.

Originally published at http://incubatorblogger.wordpress.com on January 19, 2021.

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