Business / Economy

Too smart for your own good

It was a merger made in heaven.

The chief executives liked each other. The first contacts went fine. The big weekend meeting, held in the suite of a four-star hotel to keep gossip under wraps, began extremely well. Although the two teams of executives convened there in secret had much to examine, as they compared notes and numbers, the synergies under discussion really did seem to make sense. These two companies belonged together. Not only that, but were the two to merge, everybody in the room would stand to make a lot of money.

But by Sunday afternoon the deal was off and everyone went home to the status quo. What happened? As the weekend wore on, one of the key executives began to talk. First he summarized the background and theoretical advantages of the deal; next he summarized his team’s findings and opionions; then he summraized the other team’s. He was enthusiastic, spot-on, brilliant, funny, and trenchant, and he absolutely killed the deal.

How? Not by being the smartest guy in the room, but by letting everybody know it.

“I realized I could never work with the guy,” said one participant afterwards. “He was just too smart.”

If it sounds like an odd complaint to have about an executive, in truth, intelligence is not all it’s cracked up to be. We all know that, of course. In our daily dealings we encounter brilliance that is not suited to higher achievement, that must serve as its own reward: The comedic video store clerk, the genius of family genealogy, the literary postal employee. There are even classes of employees who fit this description: Razor-sharp accountants who can’t bear to spend to help a company grow, advertising whizes who are weeded to jingles over anything else. We accept these people and value them for what they are — a good jingle is hard to find — but we don’t make the mistake of handing them the reins of our companies.

Now, you may say that none of this is news to you. After all, you’re bright, aware, sure-footed, and confident. You’re not a clerk or a bean-counter. And somebody is paying you a lot of money — so you must be worth it.

Even if all of the above is true, what may still catch you unawares — and dump you from the top ranks — is the simple fact that you believe you are in a class by yourself. Once you decide you are above the masses, a whole set of possible pitfalls opens up: You start thinking the rule of the game don’t apply to you; you believe your every insight is propelled by genius; you tend to think you can’t lose; you begin substituting shooting from the hip for disciplined analysis; and worst of all, you let others see how well you think of yourself. Any one of these by itself can derail you. More than one, and your days at the top are numbered.

Not that the above dangers are all faced by someone who is actually very good at what he or she does. But there is another possible pitfall that may open up beneat you feet — that the elite you belong to is not the one you think. You may be one of the “accidental” successes that a boom era elevates on a rising tide. After all, anybody can sell hula hoops when they’re the rage. So if your self-esteem rests on a bed of market euphoria, this might be the time to redouble your efforts and examine your operating assumptions.

Here are a few ground rules for surviving your own smarts: Listen before you speak; don’t believe your own press releases; give your expertise an expiration date (your “greatest hit” insights may not be as enduring as you think, so don’t recycle); beware of being too proud of quickness for its own sake (it only reduces the margin for error); resist the impulse to lecture or speak down, and avoid jargon; and always share the spotlight.

Nobles in medieval times often kept a skull on the desk to remind them of their mortality. That would be a bit too morbid for today’s tastes, but you might want to keep this set of reminders of how success can bring you that much closer to failure.

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