Hiring For Smarts Isn’t What You May Think It Is

Only hire people smarter than you, but know what kinds of smarts you need…

In the modern corporate environment, far too many executives are bent on taking the notion of “hiring people smarter than they are” to the extreme.  In doing so, they create talent cultures where glib, facile intellects have an advantage over specialists of all sorts; and this is a problem for strategy creation and execution.

These cultures will take an un-apprenticed person with a generalist skillset (or, in some cases, merely a strong presence) and explain away deep functional deficiencies as “flat spots” to be rounded out.  They will concurrently ignore deep specialists without the glib (and, yes, I do mean this as a pejorative–as it very much is) facade and deem them not fit for higher office due to capability deficiencies.

They make depth and breadth equal partners in talent evaluation structures, and then overweight breadth in the actual evaluation. In doing so, they cast off expert talents in favor of generalists ones.  They get it all backwards.  In spades.

Why it happens

This problem goes back to a notion whose origin is unclear to me: “Only hire people smarter than you.”  I agree with this… No, really, only hire people smarter than you!

It’s a good policy.  Sure, on its face, it’s a ridiculous notion. It’s one whose logic leaves the smartest people in the most junior roles, and a team of ignoramuses in the C-suite.

In a seminal Harvard Business Review article called Hiring For Smarts, author Justin Menkes reinforced the notion that intelligence rules. Hire for it.

But to think that way too purely misses the point.  The people you hire need to be expected to develop more depth than you have at something. That something may be as straightforward as managing your calendar or as complex as negotiating cross-border partnerships.  People who work for you don’t have to be broader than you, but they should (eventually) be deeper than you at something. They have to be smarter than you or they won’t provide you real effectiveness.

In other words, if you only hire people who look like you but who are only slightly less capable than you at everything you do, you are either (1) running an apprenticeship shop (and that’s fine), or (2) really not a good hiring manager.  If you are hiring apprentices, that’s fine, but you need to acknowledge it.  More common is reality (2).

Some common reasons for these deficiencies 

So, then, why are so many executives, even those who are otherwise avowed technocrats, failing so miserably at this by over weighting degree, background, and a glib social presence on their way to hiring generalists that have nothing special to contribute to the team?

Here are a few reasons:

  1. They cultivate a magnificently flawed hiring processes:  Without a doubt the most common reason is that hiring processes place more focus on personality and presence than capability and competence.  To be sure, rapport is important in an interview. But, capability profiles can’t be dismissed in the interest of rapport. Some firms solve this with tests, some with good cop / bad cop interviewing approaches, and still others (the world class ones) with interview approaches that are very common and calibrated to find both rapport / fit and capability.  If your hiring processes solve for glib generalists that look like mini-senior executives, then that’s what you will get.  Unfortunately, those profiles are too often the most difficult to upskill to the needs of their next job.  Like it or not, technical competence is much harder to gain in a short time than boardroom presence, and a lot easier to justify in the after action report on a bad hire.
  2. They are scared as hiring managers: The second most common reason for the misapplication of the “hiring for smarts” notion is that hiring managers are actually afraid of hiring people with more knowledge than them. They continually hire technical lightweights because they are afraid of bringing a threat to their own well being into the organization.  So, they explicitly hire for nice looking generalists who seem very smart but who lack depth.  If your hiring managers tend to be the experts at vetoing recommendations from peers who review their candidates, you might have this in action.
  3. They propagate tyrannical management practices: The third reason I’ll give is actually the extreme other end of reason 2. This one is the hiring manager who only wants things done a certain way (whether that way is good, bad, ethical, or unethical), and will hire absolute blank slates–or, simply yes man versions of themselves–to do it. These hiring manager profiles are common, and come with significant downside.  If your hiring managers pound the table against the notion of bringing in people with strong experience from elsewhere because it “won’t fit,” you might have this dynamic in place.  You also might have someone concerned that an outside expert could find the cracks in their empire. Watch out.

So What? 

The “so what” to this post is right there at the top.  Hire people for their smarts, but know what kind of smarts you need. Try the old double blind test:  If you strip out the name, education, and company names from the resume, does it still suit your needs for a sufficient and smartly deep person?

Why am I writing on this?  It may read as very “HR-centric” and perhaps outside the scope of a practice that is focused on strategy and performance.


Good teams build great strategies.

Good teams are built through great hiring and promotion practices.

And…Too often, today, so-called “great” hires are judged by their cover letter, brand names, and presences and not a thorough vetting of their C.V. and true special qualities.

I’ve yet to see a good team built exclusively from very smart generalists.  The best of teams have a strong vein of hard won experience and depth within them.  They also have a strong willingness to listen to that experience.

I write this for the CEOs and senior executives in my life and practice, but certainly these thoughts apply to anyone charged with building a team through hiring.

Hire people smarter than you.  Just make sure their smarts emerge from functional or technical depth, and you will be ok.

Good luck, and please share any thoughts you have!


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