The pitfalls of a smart executive team

Having the smartest people in the room sounds like a sure bet. How can you fail with all that intelligence and knowledge on your side? Pretty easily, it turns out. The list of major companies that have been routed or rendered irrelevant by smaller, more agile companies is long and well documented. Almost invariably these failed companies were brimming with the “smartest” folks around. Which suggests we take a closer look at the limitations of smart–and what it actually takes to sustain a high performing organization.

Smart is more curse than blessing when people equate it with knowing, having the answers, or with certainty. While knowing lots of stuff, having ready answers and conveying a sense of certainty may be useful in some situations, they also carry some profound and very practical limitations. First of all, they tend to be backward-oriented. Much of what we know is based on our past experience; the answers that we might confidently apply to today’s questions are often yesterday’s answers. Which wouldn’t be a problem if things weren’t changing so quickly these days.

At the risk of looking backward here to make the point, there is nothing new about this idea: More than twenty-five hundred years ago Heraclitus stated that “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” It was probably ignored or glibly dismissed back then, too. Point is, to be truly responsive and effective in today’s world, we have to actually be here today; not following yesterday’s playbook. Clearly this is easier said than done, especially when your organization’s culture places a premium on being “right” and appearing certain.

When we have “the answers,” we tend to stop asking questions. We stop being curious about what’s going on around us and why. Even more importantly, we stop being curious about what’s going on “inside” of us and our team and why. We stop asking questions like, What might we be missing about what’s going on in the marketplace that may not be obvious from the data? Or, What might be some potentially harmful longer term implications of our proposed “solution”, even though it might address some near-term pain points? Or, How are the assumptions we are operating on that might be outdated or ungrounded? Or, How might the way that we executives speak and listen to one another be limiting our thinking, hindering our alignment or producing weak promises (in other words, creating the very conditions we all wish to avoid)? These are pretty timeless questions–they were as relevant 100 years ago as they are today–but the answers must be timely, fresh and alive in order to serve us well in the present.

One reason executive teams stop asking themselves these questions is that it makes folks uncomfortable. It can be awkward, embarrassing, even downright threatening to acknowledge that this “smart” group of leaders doesn’t have all the answers, and that the future truly is–regardless of how confident these leaders may appear–fundamentally uncertain and not knowable. (BTW, this dynamic starts well before the executive board room. We learn it in grade school and it’s reinforced right through college, as we are encouraged to study the “right” answers (instead of questioning the question or seeking alternative ways of thinking about the question), and are rewarded for what we “know” as evidenced by our standardized test scores.)

Another challenge is that yesterday’s answer seem so “reasonable.” They are familiar, comfortable and make sense within the historical (and now habitual) thinking that produced them. And when the rest of the organization, and often the rest of the industry, shares this “common sense” it’s very difficult to examine it carefully, must less depart from it.

To sum it up, when leaders already believe they have the answers, or that their past experience is an infallible guide to the future, they stop reflecting, stop challenging their own views. Feedback mechanisms are closed, dissenting views are avoided and unintentionally shut down. People cease to learn, which means that the present and future are no longer accessible to them or their organization. The best they can do is replicate what’s worked before and hope it will work again (while continuing to appear smart and maintaining an air of certainty).

Here are a few ways to get beyond “smart:” Try building time in your weekly team meeting to intentionally take on unreasonable or counter-intuitive viewpoints, and to challenge your team’s long-cherished assumptions, opinions and “knowledge.” Flip the focus from what do we know to how much we don’t know about this situation and how can we uncover more about our blindspots? Instead of hiring the most experienced, knowledgable person to fill a position, try prioritizing for someone with less experience who can think differently and learn voraciously (think Moneyball). Make sure to feed and care for your team’s ignorance. It may be the most intelligent thing you can do to improve and sustain performance.

April 16, 2023 by Grayson James


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