“If you are the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.”
The quote above has been attributed to many famous thinkers and successful leaders, including Confucius and Marissa Mayer, the former CEO of Yahoo. No matter who said it first, this memorable line resonates in many ways in the world of business.
It’s especially relevant as we consider the eighth attribute identified by Google’s Project Oxygen initiative about what makes a great manager: Possesses key technical skills to help advise the team.
You might wonder, how much technical know-how is enough? Do I possess enough knowledge to lead others who are also experts in their field?
First, let’s start by asking different questions. After all, at any given moment in time, you only know what you know. So, the real questions to ask yourself are: do I also know what I don’t know, and do I know how to close the gap between where I am and where I want to be? Who else may know even more? Here are some things to keep in mind as you reflect on these questions:
- Be Self-Aware and Work on Your Knowledge Gaps. First, identify your gaps in knowledge; the best leaders prize self-awareness. Then figure out how to fill those gaps. In addition to your own research and reading, consider an online course, a class at a local college, or weekly coffee chats with a mentor. Even your suppliers, the ones you’ve built a good rapport with, may have some ideas for who could help you improve your knowledge base.
Consider networking groups too. For every niche business, there is a related professional organization. Are you a member of such a group? If not, join today! Beyond that, strive to create valuable relationships in your industry, in your network, in your community.
At Institute Success, our three favorite words are: Engage, engage, engage. Get out of your office, out of your own head and into the world. Realize that while you may own a certain amount of knowledge, others in your field may own a whole different set. And the flow of knowledge goes both ways, so always be willing to give before you get. When asking for someone’s time so they can share their knowledge with you, offer a resource of yours in exchange. Building networks in this way in invaluable. Consider the very title of the well-known book on business networking by Harvey McKay: “Build Your Well Before You’re Thirsty.” Start building your knowledge network today.
- Know Your Team and Develop Leaders From Within. In addition to knowing our own strengths and weaknesses, good leaders have to know what each employee’s strengths and challenges are. As the common saying goes, train employees well enough so they can leave and treat them well enough that they don’t want to. Great leaders must communicate with their employees (another attribute of a great leader, as identified by Project Oxygen) and continually challenge them to grow and develop.
Leading employees in this way starts with the Golden Question: What do I need to do to help you become more successful? It always starts with me, the leader. My job as the leader is to give my staff the opportunity to learn from their own gaps in knowledge. And it’s my job to know that when I cannot be the one to teach them that information, I need to point them to people who can. So, don’t be afraid to offer resources to your employees who are trying to improve their knowledge base. You could refer them to people within your own firm, or from your wider network.
Whether they are learning directly from you, or from someone you recommended, you are still the one guiding them. And that’s important. Because one of the main jobs of a leader is create other leaders. The easiest way to do that is to share knowledge back and forth. Just as your employees should not be afraid to come to you for help, you should never hesitate to tap into their expertise. Ask them: What do you see that I’m not seeing?
- It Starts With Yourself. To be the best leader of others, you must be the best leader of yourself. One way to do that is to value continual learning. Even professional athletes or expert singers never stop learning. They hire a coach, many times more than one type of coach, to keep them sharp or help them develop in a particular area. At Institute Success, we see every day as a new opportunity to learn. We can help you open up new avenues of strength and development as a leader, helping you fine tune who you want to be.
Often when coaching clients, we will draw one box on a board or paper, entitled “Learning.” On top of that will be a box labeled “Doing.” We draw arrows back and forth between the two because you can’t have one without the other. It’s not enough to be just learning, you have to be doing and immerse yourself in your work. This experience gives you the feedback you need to keep improving. The goal of all this learning and doing is the box we draw at the very top: “Becoming.” We want all our leaders to “become” the best versions of themselves they can be.
This won’t happen magically, or overnight. In fact, as many of us know from the writings of Malcolm Gladwell, it takes about 10,000 hours to become expert at something. Even the Beatles had to put in their time. According to Gladwell’s book “Outliers: The Story of Success,” the Beatles traveled to Hamburg, Germany, multiple times over a year and a half to rack up live performances. All told, they performed for 270 nights in that short time span and that set them on their path to fame. So, don’t rush it, and never stop learning.
Institute Success Tip: When asking for help, come from a place of strength and vulnerability. Ask: “This is what I know, maybe there is something I don’t know. Can we talk?”