Smart people know when not to be too smart

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 August, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 August, 1993, 12:00am

I ONCE sat in on a meeting with the owner of a company as he listened to his vice-president of business development recommend a heavy investment in a new venture.

The vice-president made his case brilliantly. The way he presented it, it sounded like a sure thing.

At the end, the owner turned to his vice-president and said: ''Tim, that was one of the best presentations I've ever heard. The only problem is that if we go ahead with it, we'll be competing with our biggest customer, who probably won't like that and might fire us.'' End of discussion. But the vice-president persisted, arguing that the best minds in the company supported him.

The owner cut him off, saying: ''That's why you're not rich. You and your buddies are too smart.'' The owner's last remark was said in jest, but it had the ring of truth. Given the choice, I would always rather have more brains than less. The smartest people often come up with some of the most ingenious ways to undermine themselves. Consider these pitfalls: They surround themselves with other smart people.

Inherently, there's nothing wrong with this; it's better than being surrounded by fools. But it can lead to a dangerous sort of cliquishness, where the smart people only agree with each other and shut out anyone else. You see this in highly technical areas, where the technical wizards only speak to one another in jargon. This single-mindedness makes them good in their narrow area, but it undermines them with other parts of the company.

They boast about their brilliance.

Bragging is never attractive, but it's stupid to brag about how you outsmarted someone else.

An advertising salesman at a sports magazine had the good fortune of selling a huge block of pages to a major advertiser. As part of the deal, the salesman promised to try to get a major article on the company into the magazine. It was an outrageous promise, because editorial departments reflexively chafe at any interference from the business side.

But this salesman was smart. He spent months manoeuvring inside the company, until the article was assigned, written and ready to run. Then he turned stupid. He boasted about how he finessed the editorial department into running the piece. Of course, this reached one of the magazine's top editors who, irked at the slightest appearance of favouring an advertiser, killed the piece. That would never have happened if he had kept his clever scheme to himself.

They ignore feedback.

This is not the exclusive domain of smart people. Everyone can be blind to the warning signals that their idea is not working or they are on the wrong track. But the smartest people tend to be a little too confident about their facts and their insights, to the point where they will not tolerate any opinion that contradicts them.

They over-complicate everything.

Most situations are as simple as they seem, but smart people have a tough time accepting this.

We once had an executive who could come up with 11 reasons why a project would not work for every reason why it would. No one doubted his ample intellect, but it took me a while to see how undermining it could be.

I once made the mistake of bringing him along on a sales call. I made my pitch for an event sponsorship. The customer agreed on the spot. And then I watched in horror as my associate outlined all the things - weather, insurance, crowd control, televisioncoverage - that could go wrong. He could not accept the reality of the situation, that the customer liked the concept enough to buy it. He had to complicate it by demonstrating he knew all the risks involved.

They fall in love with the process, not the result.

Smart people get so deeply immersed in the mechanics of producing good work they forget why they started the job in the first place.

We once hired a talented journalist from the BBC to produce sports programming and films for our television division. We thought his background of producing world-class documentaries at the BBC would add some network sheen to our productions. One of his first projects was a film on European golf sponsored by one of our most valuable customers. The sponsor's chairman had some ideas about what should be in the film and how his company should be presented, and he criticised our producer's work. The producer went wild over the chairman's supposed meddling. He refused to alter one second of the fabric of his work, which he regarded as journalistically pure, for some insignificant commercial reason.

Unlike the example above, this was not a case of advertisers compromising editorial integrity. The company, after all, was paying for the film. But this fellow had fallen so deeply in love with the process of producing the film that he had lost sight of the desired result - which was to produce a film the sponsor liked.

They pick dumb fights.

I guess this is the most effective way smart people outsmart themselves. They think their intelligence gives them a licence to flout convention and behave like a renegade. They expect people to excuse their personality defects simply because they are right more often than they are wrong.

This perverse streak is most evident in the way smart people deal with authority.

Some years ago I had frequent dealings with a bright young man who had a meteoric rise to the managing director's job of an apparel company that was part of a holding company controlled by a friend of mine. At some point, my friend took some strong positions about the apparel business that this managing director violently disagreed with. He voiced his displeasure by disparaging my friend to anyone who would listen.

I remember thinking this managing director might not be as smart as he thought he was. No matter how solid his record of accomplishment, he would not be managing director for long if he forgot my friend was the ultimate boss, the kind who could say: ''You're fired.'' But authority seems to bring out the worst in smart people. They cannot yield to it, so they fight it. As a result, they often end up in battles they cannot win. That's what happened to the managing director, who took on the boss and ultimately lost his job. You'll never convince me this was smart.