The trick to managing people smarter than yourself

Do you know I have a younger brother?

I grew up the older brother in my family. My younger brother was only 15 months younger because there had been a strong chance I wouldn't make it at birth and the doctors told my folks that if they wanted a healthy (and normal) child, they should try for another baby quickly. And they did.

When you go to school and your younger brother goes to the same school, the assumed dynamic is that the older will set the bar that the younger brother will have to later match. But when it came to math my brother didn't have to wait a year to match my scores. He was in class with me. Setting the curve.

In math, my brother was faster at picking up everything. He was better at taking tests. He got higher scores and finished his work faster. He was, without debate, smarter than me in math.

And he was my younger brother. It wasn't exactly the way things normally work out, but it was the environment I grew up in.

He was also better than me in soccer, the family sport. Faster than me in running. Funnier than me when it came to jokes, with a sharper and faster wit.

I'm so thankful for that environment

You might read all that and think I'm about to throw a pity party over here. But trust me, I don't regret a single moment of my growing up years with my brother. We had fun together and there wasn't (and isn't) a lot of competition between us.

And as the older brother there were still things I was responsible for – in terms of taking care of my little brother. Nothing about the rest of the dynamic above absolved me from my duties as an older brother.

This entire dynamic and context really helped me learn something—a reality that I have cherished in my professional career.

Really smart people still need leadership and management.

Before I get to the trick about managing people smarter than yourself, let's agree on a few truths:

  • There will always be someone who is smarter than you
  • Someone else's intelligence doesn't replicate your experience
  • There are a tremendous amount of things to be smart about
  • No one is smart about everything

If we agree on this, then the rest is smooth sailing. Or at least it has been for me. And I've been managing people smarter than me for more than 20 years professionally.

Here are some more things I think we can agree on:

  • Being smart at Javascript doesn't make you smart about hiring
  • Being smart at MVC doesn't make you smart about budgeting
  • Being smart at caching doesn't make you smart about estimating
  • Being smart at PHP doesn't make you smart about communication

And I'm pretty sure we could also agree that success at any endeavor often requires success at many endeavors.

So what's my secret to managing people smarter than me?

At the core, it's all about creating harmony rather than melody. It's about finding ways to complement each other rather than trying to duplicate what each person on the team can do.

And I do that using these three strategies.

First, remove all ego. It's easy to say but has taken me a long time to learn. You actually have to believe and trust that others are smarter and that it's fine not to be the smartest person in the room. Get comfortable with reality and then move on. Someone else's intelligence says nothing about you.

Second, ask questions. It's a lot easier to engage a smart person's brain by asking them a question than by telling them your version of a fact. First, your fact may (in fact) no longer be a fact. Second, they may or may not believe your version of the facts. But a question engages people much more effectively.

Third, tell stories. I may not know everything about everything, but that doesn't mean I have no experience. So often when I share a story of an experience, a smarter person than myself can extrapolate a truth from it that applies to their situation, even if I still don't fully understand their situation. Having a mental model of what others are working on allows me to find the stories that may help, even if I don't fully grasp every detail.

If you want to talk more about managing your staff, I have a bit of free time to talk.

Do you have any tricks? Share them with me below?