One of my favorite quotes is “if you are the smartest person in the room, you are in the wrong room.” Partially because it exemplifies how we should build teams with honor, but also because it just simply takes the pressure off of having to be something I will never be! But many people who are making the transition from manager to leader struggle with this seemingly simple phrase that was written by Confucius. Let’s talk about the why and what we can do about it.
Keeping all of your fingers
Let’s step back 100 years to understand why managers are expected to be the smartest person in the room. Back during the Industrial Revolution and the ensuing Industrial Age, work was redundant and based on the assembly line. Individuals worked around new machinery that was, in many cases, unsafe; and production output requirements were high. Workers who excelled and who became experts and who were able to keep all of their fingers were promoted to managers; as they must have been doing something right! These managers were considered subject matter experts and were considered the smartest people in the room because of it. They created rules and regulations and processes and procedures to make production stayed high.
New century, new circumstances
Fast forward past the Information Age to what we now see as the Collaboration Age, where we have access to everything but need to collaborate to actually get work done with all of this information. It is no longer enough to just have “kept all of your proverbial fingers” as a manager. New-era leadership is about being able to understand clients and partners, empowering teams, and inspiring innovation. This changes not only who we are as leaders but how connect and lead/manage! The new role is now not creating structures to keep people in check
Build your room
So, what do we do here. First, as leaders, we need awareness that we are in this Collaboration Age and that our approach is to create high-performing teams. That isn’t just in those areas where development or ops or whatever is going on, but in leadership and business and anywhere, because no one person knows everything. Second, learn to defer. If you are like me, you abhor a vacuum but it is ok for there to be silence sometimes. Let the teams feel that and know that they have space to bring “situational leadership.” Finally, find opportunities and methods for incentivizing. This doesn’t mean just throwing a bonus around, it means rewarding like with like. Compliments, kudos, call-outs, etc. help create a “room” (environment) that allows people to step up. Over time, this will help you build a team that can tackle any challenge, meet any need, and excel at any change thrown their way, which is exactly what you want as a leader.
Apply what you learn
I am going to start ending my articles and blogs with actions that give the reader explicit activities, changes, or ideas to apply and try. Let me know what you think!
- In your next meeting with your team, open it up and set a vision for the meeting but let them that you are going to listen and “hang back.” Fight the urge to interject. If you need to, ask questions, but don’t give direct “to-dos.”
- Create a list (or better yet a whiteboard of stickies) of areas where you have strived to be “the smartest person in the room.” Come up with 1-2 ways that you can 1) become aware, 2) defer, and 3) incentivize.
- Comment with stories of where you were able to tackle 1 and 2.