If you think the boss should have all the answers, you might be confused about what it means to be a good leader. As a general rule of thumb, every person hired should be smarter than the manager at what they’ve been hired to do, says Ian Siegel, cofounder and CEO of the employment platform ZipRecruiter. “If every manager at the company keeps doing that, you’ll end up with an elite team,” he says. “That’s the dream.”
Managing someone who is smarter than you, however, does take a certain approach, says Siegel, who cofounded ZipRecruiter in 2010. Since then, over 800,000 businesses, including AT&T, Wells Fargo, and Starbucks, have used the platform to find, screen, and track applicants.
When he was just 23, Siegel was tasked with managing an older and more experienced team of engineers at the online city guide Citysearch. “Four failed CTOs had come before me, and the team was considered difficult and volatile,” he says. “I knew they all were smarter than I was, so I told them, ‘Just tell me what to do, and I’ll do it.’”
The approach turned out to be the key to his success, says Siegel, although he didn’t know it at first. Initially, Siegel felt like a fraud and was certain he was failing, but when he admitted during a leadership meeting that he didn’t know what he was doing, he got some surprising feedback.
“Everyone in the room started immediately telling me that I was the best manager at the company,” he says. “The only reason they thought that was because I was the best listener the team had ever had. It sounds so simple, but listening to people is highly effective, especially when you’re managing people who are smarter than you.”
Throughout his 21-year career, Siegel has managed teams that were filled with smart people. Recently, he managed a computer engineering team from Israel who were working to complete high-level systems architecture programming for ZipRecruiter. “Many had come out of the Israeli military and were beyond elite,” he says. “They had been writing code to save lives. They were the best of the best–off-the-charts smart.”
Instead of being intimidated, Siegel tapped into their motivation and changed the way he delivered his tasks. “I would start each project with the mission,” he says. “I would say, ‘This is the goal. This is the strategy. This is what success looks like.’”
This approach gave the team autonomy, which is important when managing people who are smarter than you. “Describe the objective and let them go,” Siegel says.
Problems often happen in the workplace when a manager feels the need to prove their worth by leading with their ideas, says Siegel. “Instead, lead by creating an environment where the best ideas come out,” he says.
This is a common challenge when a company promotes a top performer to management. The best managers usually aren’t the best performing individuals, says Siegel. “If you take Michael Jordan, for example, and have him coach the team, his expectations for the rest of the players will be unrealistic,” he says. “The things that come easy to Michael Jordan don’t come easy to the rest of the team. Managers need to be good at identifying individual talent.”
Identifying strengths also means acknowledging shortcomings, says Siegel. “You go to war with the army you have,” he says. “The Israeli engineers, for example, are fantastic at solving business and technical problems, but I am light years ahead of them when it comes to getting up in front of a room and explaining that strategy in a way everyone can understand. There has to be appreciation on both sides and a willingness from all of the participants of the team to work together.”
When team members who are smarter act superior to managers, this causes problems, says Siegel. “I’ve run into engineers, marketers, and product developers who do this, and it’s not limited to one specific type,” he says. “While you can argue, those who will fight to the death are poison to a team. Those are individuals, regardless of their talent, that you want to move off your team.”
Make sure you always acknowledge a job well done, says Siegel. “If you tell someone to solve a hard problem, and then act like the results are to be expected because you pay them a salary, it will quickly lead to the person feeling underappreciated,” he says. “You can’t become jaded to their talent. Once they conquer the goal and succeed, show appreciation. It is amazing how a few words of congratulation can be received.”