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Why Do You Have To Be The Smartest Guy In The Room?

One of the curses of being a CEO is that we think we know more than everyone else. Although we deny this over and over again, and we make bold statements such as “I always hire people smarter than me,” or “I surround myself with people who know more than I do,” the reality is that we don’t act that way. I have worked with dozens of CEOs who claimed they deferred to their better educated, more informed staff, yet demonstrated a disregard for their staff’s ideas by always trying to add value.

How Does One “Add Value”?

Adding value is when we take a person’s idea and try to make it better by adding our own contribution to it. We simply can’t resist making their idea even better!

Here is how it works: Your VP of marketing comes into your office with a recommendation to increase the advertising budget to include some new website ads. You look her right in the eye and say “That’s a great idea…but you know what would make it even better? Let’s do such and such….”

Basically, you just told her that her idea was crap, and that you have a better idea, or at least that’s how she sees it. How do you think she feels about herself, about the job she’s doing, and about how you see her? If you want people to stop bringing you good ideas, then crush their spirit by telling them how to make them better.

Taking A Step Back

It’s funny, but we just seem compelled to do this. We have to take every idea, concept, and recommendation, and improve upon it. Yet we brag about how we hire such smart people. If they’re so smart, why do we keep “helping” them with our input?

As a CEO, there are times when you have to keep your mouth shut, even when you really believe an idea can be improved upon. Let the person enjoy their moment. Allow them the opportunity to present something and have it stand on its own. There is plenty of time later to “tweak” it. And if you are really good at what you do, you can find ways to suggest improvements and have your staff think it was their idea. Here are a few recommendations on how to improve an idea without you directly adding your own value to it:

  • You can hold a meeting with several others and ask the group to discuss and enhance the idea.
  • You can have committees or working groups that review ideas and discuss how to implement them.
  • You can even ask the person who came up with the idea to go back and come up with two or three ways to improve it (there is always something else that can be thought of, even by the original author or inventor).

The lesson here is that your desire to add value to another person’s idea might make you feel good, but it makes the other person feel crushed. Hold back, bite your tongue, and let your people have their moment to bask in the sun. There are other opportunities to improve the idea without your “contribution.”

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The Dangers of Favortism

Favoritism! I am amazed at how many times I hear a CEO or other C-level executive claim how much they hate “suck-ups” and “ass kissers,” yet see them reward that exact behavior. EVERYONE says they hate these kinds of employees, but they are embraced and treated as favorites. How can we say one thing, yet do another?

We claim that we want independent thinkers, people who can speak their minds and express their opinions, and people who challenge us. Yet, we push those very people away, and send them a clear message that we prefer a good suck-up over a person with an opinion that differs from ours. We love to play favorites! Why do we encourage the exact behavior we ridicule?

We tend to gravitate toward subordinates who make us feel good about ourselves, seem to like us, and compliment us. We hang out with them more than other employees. We reward them more often, and with better benefits, bonuses, and promotions. We brag about them to other employees, and we are more likely to show them support and attention in public. What kind of message does this send to the other employees, particularly the ones that are more challenging to us, and disagree with us on key issues?

The more you reward a behavior, the more of it you get. If sucking up is a way to get ahead and get positive feedback, people will do more of it, and the independent thinkers who would challenge us, tend to back off and become more fawning just to stay equal with the others. We have now built a team of servile, unthinking “yes men.” Do you think that’s going to make your company more successful? Hardly!

To be a great CEO, we need to be challenged. We need to hear differing opinions so we can make informed decisions. We need people to tell us the truth, not what we want to hear. And we need to know what our subordinates actually think of us.

To become a great CEO, you need to ask this question about your subordinates:
“Do their words and/or actions contribute to my self-esteem, or do they contribute to the success of the company?” The answer will be obvious.

If your employees are spending more time flattering you than working on important issues in your company, they are really doing you a disservice. You might feel good hearing such nice things about yourself or having consensus on every issue, but it’s doing nothing to solve problems or advance the company. The more we bask in praise, the weaker we become as leaders. We need to welcome challenge in order to strengthen ourselves. Only a weak leader is afraid to hear the truth.