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Do you hire people smarter than you are?

Would you hire someone who’s smarter than you are? In 35 years in journalism and the marine industry, I’ve heard my share of senior management types espouse the virtues of surrounding themselves with people who are brighter than they are. In truth, more than a few wound up foundering because they didn’t hire people who were strong, smart and could play well with others — either that or they left too many dim bulbs comfortably flickering in their sockets.

Building a team of people who are “smarter” than you is one of those management maxims that’s easier said than done. The industry is at a point now where boomers like you and me are interviewing millennials for jobs. These digital natives have technology skills that are both second nature and second to none. Like breathing, almost. They’re smart, well-educated and the key to our future.

To address the question, I turned to Trade Only columnist Mary Elston, who has worked in management for more than 20 years in the transportation, consulting and technology industries.

So, would you hire someone who’s smarter than you are? “You have to have people smarter than you are,” said Elston, who works for Cisco Systems and has written a management column for us for nearly a decade. “You can’t possibly have experience and expertise in every facet of what you need to be successful in today’s fast-moving environment.”

With technology changing so rapidly, there is a strong likelihood that you will hire someone smarter than you are, at least smarter in a “particular knowledge space,” said Elston, who also does management training. But Elston’s remarks come with caveats.

“You don’t want people who will steamroll you or undermine you. You have to be able to trust them. The trust thing is huge.” And in an interview environment, she noted, “You just can’t ask, ‘Are you going to play fair?’ When it comes to pay or promotion, a lot of people don’t play fair.”

Everyone gives lip service to the idea of going after the brightest. “And they do it to the level that they can control it and maintain the top post,” said Elston, who has also worked for Oracle and VMware. The reluctance? “They don’t want it found out that an underling is smarter than they are.”

Building and managing a team of bright individuals requires a manager who has a “super-strong skill set” and strong leadership skills, she said.

“How do you manage genius?” asked Elston, whose most recent e-book, “Leap to the Next Level: 7 Essential Steps for All Leaders,” will be available in September. “Let them run, but don’t let them run over you. Let them expand. Let them grow.”

Elston passed along three tips that a senior HR person had once given about hiring. The first is to hire people with broad intelligence. Are they sharp? Do they pick up things quickly? Can they put the pieces together?

The second is to look for people who have a willingness to grow and learn, to fit in and play fair.

And the last one, Elston said, is search for people with passion, desire and the “fire in the belly.” That’s the driver.


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