Why Work with People Who Are Better

I was listening to Sheryl Sandberg on the podcast Master's of Scale, when I heard her say, "You do want to hire people who are better than you are." When someone I perceive as an awesome smart woman says this, it gives you pause for thought. I paused the podcast and wondered why so many great leaders all give the same advice.

Hire people who are smarter than you.

It turns out the real smart move is intentionally not being the smartest person in the room. Rather it is inspiring, cultivating and bringing out the best in people who are better than you.

"I hire people brighter than me and get out of their way." Lee Iococca

Brown Johnson, Creative director of Sesame Workshop, had told me that her secret is working with people who are smarter than her. Johnson, who is known as the mother of Dora the Explorer, is my friend and I thought she was being humble. I was wrong. She was stating a business credo.

Even someone who is not known for being humble, Steve Jobs, gave similar advice: "It doesn't make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do."

Here is why working with people who are better, more knowledgeable or more talented than we are, is such a big contributor to success:

They pull you up--Jeff Bezos says this about hiring: "every time we hire someone, he or she should raise the bar for the next hire, so that the overall talent pool is always improving." This creates an upward movement of talent pulling talent. You build on each other's ideas and pull each other up.

Proximity to greatness--I went to graduate school with Stefan Sagmeister, who for many is the best graphic designer today. Seeing Sagmeister in action, up close, I could observe how he approached new projects, feel his infectious enthusiasm, watch him at work, and then go to my studio and emulate him. I learned early on that when you build a team, you want to create that proximity to greatness.

Learning from each other--In design, you need to learn like a sponge and synthesize diverse information quickly with every project. Your team is your first and deepest place of learning, you learn from each other and you learn together. Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, says not to hire "people you can't learn from or be challenged by." This is why.

Being different from you--people who are smarter than you are often smarter in different ways. I am great at visualizing ideas and thinking in systems. Couple me with coders, mathematical thinkers, great story tellers and people who are incredibly detail oriented, and together we go from great to amazing. You need the intellectual diversity to help you cross-fertilize from each other's knowledge and expertise. That is the formula for 1+1=3.

I love the way Michael Dell states it: "Try never to be the smartest person in the room. And if you are, I suggest you invite smarter people ... or find a different room."

Design the life and work you love, with people who are smarter.