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Should Your Subordinate Be Smarter Than You?

May 3, 2008
There has been a general, unspoken wisdom passed down through the ages. It is an unwritten rule that influences hiring, and is at the bottom of all office politics, regardless of industry or geographic location.

The rule is: NEVER hire anyone smarter than you.

The reason that rule is never spoken, is because it points out our insecurity and self-centered logic. It is an acknowledgment of the fear that a smarter person serving under us will reveal flaws in our practices, and disturb our status quo. Worse, it may disturb our ascension into the realms of middle and upper management. Our subordinate may actually spring ahead of us, and take that position we had coveted for so very long.

This is the instant logical crisis that confronts any supervisor or manager who has been charged with the task of hiring a new employee. After all, this is a competition, a race to be first. This is self-preservation at its finest. It is the most basic instinct at the core of mankind. The only problem is, our instincts are horrible.

The truth is, competence is never a threat. In fact, when people throw around the now passť term "diversity", they are actually looking for competence. This is the same mistake business has always made. When they brought in a college-educated greenhorn in the 50's, they were looking for a "fresh set of eyes". They were still looking for competence, and they may or may not have found it. Diversity or an education only works if you can apply your unique point of view to the problems that are being solved. Please note that I am not making a case for, or against, diversity or an education. I am merely argument that without the ability to apply the lessons learned, your education or unique cultural background make little or no difference.

So, why should you hire someone smarter than you? Well, for starters, it makes you look good. This was actually brought up by an acquaintance of mine that attends my local church. As a team leader at his company, he is in charge of various projects. He always brings in the most talented people he can find to work for him. In many cases they have far more ability than he does. His projects turn out well. He benefits from the praise of upper management, and shares the credit with his team.

This next reason will depend largely on how you treat the employees entrusted to your care, so examine your management style as you read. What if I told you it was to your benefit for your employees to be promoted ahead of you? Don't you want to have a say with upper management, to have your name brought up in discussions for promotion? If you hire exceptional people, and treat them well, promotion will not be far off. Even if they are promoted ahead of you, they will still recognize your leadership skills, and bring you along. "A rising tide lifts all boats", is more than a cute saying. It is simple statement of a deeper and more complex truth. Be warned. This is a long term strategy. If you expect it to pay off in the short term, then you will be badly disappointed.

Lastly, let me answer another fear expressed in the opening paragraphs. What if they expose your incompetence in an area? While painful, this is a good thing. By showing you the weaknesses you possess, they give you a chance to grow and learn from them. Your employees will improve you by committee, and drag you face-first into the place you need to be professionally.

Now that you have had your fears allayed(or perhaps, confirmed), the question remains: Do you have the courage to do this? If you aren't up for the challenge, then I suggest you keep your inferiors...inferior. If you are, then put down your ego, and give it a preemptive smashing. It will prepare you for the road ahead.
About the Author
Kurt Hartman has experience in many business fields, including retail, wholesale, and E-Commerce. Currently, he holds a position as an OTR analyst with a firm that sells giant tires.
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