To Be a Strong Leader, Hire People Smarter Than You

Shawn Sullivan

Cofounder & CTO at Phase Genomics


Hiring People To Tell You What To Do

"It doesn't make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do." 一 Steve Jobs.  

What do we understand by this quote?

It's a sentiment for great managers to take, but it also creates the challenge of identifying and hiring people better than you at their job than you would be doing it. On top of that, somehow, you're supposed to be directing them after they’re hired. For us, it manifested in having quite a few data scientists, software engineers, and computational biologists, who are all better at their job than I'd be if I had to fill in. Yet, my role in the company is to be a source of understanding these domains in-depth, and from that, create and execute a technical strategy that builds the best products we can possibly build. I had to make sure my amazing people were working on the right things, check the quality of their work, answer their questions, and provide guidance and coaching when they needed it, even though I would be worse at their job than them. How could I do that?

The More Intelligent a Hire, the Better for You and Your Business

I found several universal techniques to help me manage the bright, highly-skilled, diverse group of folks on my team. They all start with being humble enough to recognize your org chart is not a pyramid of ever-increasing technical acumen, and instead a structure designed to allow information and decisions to flow up, down, and across the organization as efficiently and appropriately as possible. As a manager, it’s your job to facilitate that flow within your org, even if your reports are better at their job than you would be.

The first helpful technique is becoming a great questioner. Asking good questions starts with being a great listener. Being a great listener means actively listening and paying attention to every detail of what someone is saying. Not checking your phone, or thinking about your next meeting. Intentionally devoting all of your mental energy to the person who is speaking to you. This energetic investment in listening goes a long way to addressing the skills/smarts gap.

One type of useful question to ask is to validate assumptions. Most of the time, there are assumptions behind something that someone believes, wants to do, or has come up with; question those assumptions. Don’t question them in an aggressive manner, but in a scientific, probing way, check that their ideas stand on assumptions they can justify. It should be thought through.

Another good type of question: make sure they have a clear picture of success in their mind. What does something that they are trying to build look like? Does that meet the more significant product and the organizational needs for the company? Do they know how to recognize what that should look like? That's the part where you're the expert, and your job should be to understand what they are doing to connect everything back to the big picture.

Yet another type of question is to probe the robustness of thinking. What is the plan for testing? How are we going to start pushing load to this? How are we going to make sure that this is going to work in production? These are the kinds of questions that will ensure that the engineers have thought through the whole process and not just a shiny bit in the middle, say the sweet algorithm they're telling you about.

It can be hard to ask all of the questions you might want to, so another questioning tactic is random probing. As an analogy, if an engineer working on an idea is trying to build a fortress, your goal is to find out if the fortress is solid. Checking every brick that they've laid is a fool’s errand, especially if you have more than two or three reports. Instead, randomly probing their plans in a few places to see if it's solid there is far more practical,and with four or five good questions successfully answered you can assume the rest are well-built with a reasonable degree of certainty.

Although it may not catch everything, you'll be able to identify the things that are solid versus those that are not with a high degree of probability. Further, once they know you work this way, your reports are more likely to comprehensively self-criticize their ideas in preparation for talking to you. They won’t know what you might be asking them, and so they would be prepared to answer anything you may ask them.

Beyond listening and questioning skills, another helpful technique for managing experts is continual learning. Even though they might know more than you in their area of expertise at the moment, that does not mean it’s static forever. While listening to them, learn and try to build up your own framework and understanding of the problem space as you go so that it helps you become better over time at talking with them. You can even ask them for papers or courses or other resources so you can learn more. They will appreciate you showing an interest in their space and respecting their expertise enough to ask for their help.

The next technique: facilitate thought leadership. When you have someone better at a specific area than you, give them the genuine responsibility to own some beefy problems. Delegation of thought leadership is a powerful tool for leveling up the performance of your organization. Further, make sure that the team knows everyone—even you—are looking to the person for guidance in that space. Let them really be the thought leader.

Delegating responsibilities, not tasks, is essential. Nobody wants to be a set of extra hands for their manager. When you have hired people who are better their jobs than you are, and you simply use them as extra hands, there are two likely outcomes:

  • Your ideas are likely to be worse than theirs because they are the experts.
  • They will become unhappy in their roles and eventually leave the company.

Therefore, empower people to do the best of their work, and when they are better than you at their job, trust them to come up with an excellent solution to a complex problem.

Set Boundaries as the Manager

  • All that said, you are still the boss. You want to unleash your reports’ expertise for the benefit of the company, but you don’t want them to take that as a license to walk all over you or otherwise misbehave.
  • Know when you have to hold the line. As the manager, you have the authority to say 'no' when necessary. You do not need to delegate everything entirely or let your direct reports do whatever they think is best all the time. Make sure that what they have been doing connects back to what the company and the product need.
  • If someone has implemented a good solution for the product and could use three more sprints to make it even better, but you don't need them to, cut that off. If they are trying to solve a problem that is not required, try to redirect them onto something else.
  • If there are things like product requirements or external deadlines that need to take precedence over the technical factors, your role is to channel those into the thought process for the person. It’s important to let them know you value their thought leadership on the technical end for the space, but that some decisions are made for reasons beyond the technical.

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Shawn Sullivan

Cofounder & CTO at Phase Genomics

Engineering LeadershipLeadership DevelopmentCommunicationOrganizational StrategyDecision MakingEngineering ManagementPerformance MetricsFeedback TechniquesTechnical ExpertiseTechnical Skills

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