Leading someone who is far more experienced and talented than you

Yi Huang

Director of Engineering at Facebook



"I have a lot of great employees on my team. My philosophy is to only hire those who are better than me. However, for one of my employees, this went too far - he wasn't just better than me, he was far better. He was more experienced and talented to the point that I started to question what I brought to the table. I questioned why he needed me and how I could be valuable."

Questioning myself led to a lot of problems. One of the problems was that the employee started to see a distorted reality. This was not his fault, but mine. A manager's first responsibility is to define reality and to hold a mirror up to their employees. If they have done a good job, recognize them. If they have made a mistake, tell them. As simple as that. But my lack of confidence distorted my own reality. I started to remove the mirror and put a shiny spotlight in front of him instead. I started to only provide him with compliments and rationalized that if the employee was nearly flawless, the least I could do was to give encouragement. But it turned out that this didn't work well. The employee became more egotistic and more difficult to work with. He ignored constructive feedback from others and was not even aware that his performance was slipping. In hindsight, it makes sense, because my distorted reality distorted his reality too. He was in a manager-triggered downward spiral.

Actions taken

To save him from this situation, I made a lot of effort. While it was not complex, it required a lot of work. The first thing I did was to make him aware of his distorted sense of reality. I realized that no single employee, no matter how experienced or talented they might be, would perform well without a realistic assessment of what's happening to them and what's happening elsewhere. Everyone needs an accurate mirror that provides them with reality, and their manager is the best person to hold it up to them. I then had a series of hard conversations with my employee to correct the reality that we were seeing. It was difficult to accept initially, but, over time, this approach cured all the problems that we had previously faced. For the specific problem I was facing, simply replacing the spotlight with the mirror made a huge difference.

Lessons learned

"A manager's first responsibility is to define reality. This is one way to be valuable as a manager, regardless of how experienced and talented your employee may be. To define reality, a manager needs to be their true self and hold the mirror up to their employees all the time. If they do a good job, recognize them. If they make a mistake, tell them. Immediately. It's as simple as that. Consider the mirror as an accurate and instant way to reflect an unbiased reality. Keep the spotlight in the backseat, because it lies."

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Yi Huang

Director of Engineering at Facebook

Leadership DevelopmentCommunicationOrganizational StrategyCulture DevelopmentPerformance ReviewsFeedback TechniquesCareer GrowthCareer ProgressionSkill DevelopmentOvercoming Bias

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