You May Not Be the Smartest Person in the Room (and That’s Okay)

Success is often interpreted as an indication of intelligence. It brings to mind the lyrics of “If I were a Rich Man” from Fiddler on the Roof: “When you’re rich, they think you really know.” Highly successful entrepreneurs tend to be quite smart. Some have a good sense of self-approval; others less so. It turns out that the quality of self-approval is likely an important factor for success.

Being able to gauge your capabilities, including raw intellectual horsepower, and understanding that while you may not be the smartest person in the room, there are things you can do about that, namely, get smarter and/or change rooms. Rather than bemoaning deficits, the most successful entrepreneurs learn to focus on areas in which they do show more aptitude and interest, and to take steps to shore up their capabilities in other areas, whether by building new skills or the right team.

Below I present several lessons related to understanding your intelligence and how to use it. I illustrate the lessons with stories of entrepreneurs from my recent book Invent Reinvent Thrive (McGraw-Hill, 2014).

Find the right “classroom”—and the right brains to pick. Mike Krasny did both. “I wasn’t one of the smartest kids on the block,” he told me during our interview for the book. “I was not a good student, I was a C student, probably in the lower quartile.” Had Mike continued to use academic grades as the only measure of his talent, he may not have discovered and indulged his deep interest in computers, at a time when most of his peers knew nothing about the field. He took his first computer class in 1971 at the University of Illinois and—though it took him some time to get over the lack of confidence bred largely by his early academic experience—eventually launched computer distributor CDW. As an entrepreneur he learned as much as he could from businesses he admired and the people behind them—including HP, IBM, Microsoft, Intel, Fel-Pro, and Walmart. As head of CDW, he found the right people for his management team, further building the firm’s capabilities. By stepping into the right “classroom” in which to excel and identifying the right brains to pick, the former C-student earned an A+ in creating shareholder value.

Don’t put them on a pedestal. Everyone establishes their own standards for “smart,” generally pointing to someone else whom they consider very smart. It’s fine to have business mentors or others you admire for their intelligence. But some entrepreneurs make the mistake of putting their sources of inspiration on sky-high pedestals, which may diminish their sense of their own capabilities. This was the case with Jim Sinegal, founder of Costco. Prior to starting Costco, Jim worked for Price Club for over two decades, He always revered that company’s founder, Sol Price. “He taught me everything I know,” Sinegal said of Sol. Jim truly believed that Sol was the smartest man he’d ever met, and as a result Jim never presumed to be able to do what Sol had done, even as Costco grew steadily. Of course, at the time Jim launched Costco, Sol’s experience was infinitely greater than Jim’s, who started at Price Club “schlepping mattresses out to the customers’ cars’ rooftops.” Twenty five years later, as Price Club’s second in command, Jim felt Sol remained far smarter and more capable than Jim. It wasn’t until years later, after Costco had been operating for a while, when Jim found that Price Club was having problems, that he began to believe in his own capabilities more deeply, and made strategic moves including expanding Costco’s product lines significantly. Ultimately, Jim motivated Costco’s purchase of Price Club. Sol and Jim remained friends until Sol’s death. And while Jim still reveres Sol, the former mentee’s story illustrates that sometimes actual results displace pedestals. Removing his longtime mentor from the pedestal helped Jim make Costco into the $100 billion business it is today.

Recognize your blind-spots, Although he is not an entrepreneur but a leader of a prominent family business, Tom Pritzker’s situation is worth noting. Unlike CDW’s Mike Krasny, Tom was an excellent student, and he rose to become a third-generation leader of the highly successful Pritzker family, which held assets including the Hyatt hotel chain. Tom learned a great deal both within the classroom and outside it, especially from his father, Jay, whom I consider one of the smartest people I’ve known, and Jay’s father, A.N. Observing them helped Tom understand how to find, select, motivate and defer to strong professional managers for the family’s many businesses. But Tom also inherited a large blind-spot: While the previous generations had excellent business acumen and skills, they had failed to prepare for the “cousins stage” of the business; the many protective measures they had implemented—including granting decision-making rights and knowledge about the family business to very few family members—backfired when the business passed into the third generation’s hands. Tom was a smart businessman, but he tried to play the hand he was dealt instead of replacing a few cards. He continued with all that his ancestors had invented, instead of reinventing it to fit the family/business situation. The ensuing legal battles made the highly private Pritzkers front-page news for years. Being the smartest businesspeople in the room had made the family blind to the governance/ownership measures they needed to take. Eventually, Tom recognized the shortcoming and took steps to remedy the problems, but only after significant, undesirable public exposure of family discord.

Be honest with yourself. Honesty and self-awareness don’t always accompany intelligence, as the Pritzker story illustrates. Tom Stemberg, founder of office-supply giant Staples, provides a nice counter-example. Upon arriving at Harvard, Stemberg found himself somewhat unprepared, in part because he had completed high school in Austria after his mother moved him there following his father’s death. Speaking of Harvard, Stemberg told me, “You had to accept the fact that you’re not only not the smartest person in the room, you may not be in the top ten. You have to get comfortable with that and move forward.”That attitude helped him move forward in a big way, as he sharpened his idea of a large-scale office-supply chain, learning by observing local stationery stores and companies such as United Stationers and Quill, always admitting when he lacked knowledge, but also feeling comfortable when he thought he was right. Stemberg’s healthy self-awareness helped him build Staples into a multibillion-dollar retail chain with over 2000 stores in 26 countries.

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Intelligence is only one factor in success, and certainly not the most important one in many cases. The “smartest” entrepreneurs may not be the smartest people in the room, but they have found the right space in which to compete (like Krasny), worked hard to be honest with themselves about what they don’t know (like Stemberg), avoided being intimidated by successful peers and mentors (like Sinegal did eventually), and assessed their blind-spots carefully (like the Pritzkers eventually did). I hope you can do the same.

 

 

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