Would you rather be smart or effective?

It’s taken me a while to figure out why so many of us neglect our reputation. It’s not that we don’t care. We care a lot. It’s that we confuse our need to consider ourselves to be smart with our need to be considered effective by the world. The two are not the same thing, and one often overwhelms the other.

One of the most pernicious impulses among successful people is our overwhelming need to prove how smart we are. It’s drilled into us from our earliest school days, when we’re graded and ranked and bell-curved in a winnowing process that separates the average from the smart from the super-smart. It continues through high school and college and graduate school, where it’s even more deeply ingrained because the competition to be smart suddenly carries lifelong consequences. And we continue this competition into the workplace, although our “report cards” now come in the form of promotions, paychecks, and praise rather than test-score percentiles. We want our bosses and colleagues to admire our brainpower.

But the need to be the smartest person in the room can lead to incredibly stupid behavior. It leads to dumb arguments, in which we fight to prove that we’re right and someone else is wrong. It’s the reason we feel the need to tell someone who shares valuable information with us that we “already knew that.” It’s the reason we fight hard to defend an opinion or decision that has worn out its welcome. It’s the reason bosses can’t resist improving a subordinate’s idea by saying, “That’s great, but it would be even better if you . . .” Frankly, it’s one of the reasons so many of us are such poor listeners: We’re so invested in presenting ourselves as smart that we believe we don’t need to hear everything that people tell us; we’re smart enough to tune out people and still succeed.

Not everyone behaves like this. There are people who are willing to sacrifice the fleeting buzz of needing to be smart for the more valuable feeling of being effective—of delivering on time, of bringing out the best in others, of finding the simplest route to a solution.


Let’s say you’re a design engineer, developing a product for your company. Engineers constantly face the choice of doing something brilliant or doing something practical. In this case, you can propose either an elegant solution that will be rejected by the company (because of costs or production difficulties or whatever) or a solution that is 20 percent worse but will be accepted. Which would you prefer? Do you want to be known as someone who builds elegant objects that never get made or as someone who provides practical solutions that always “ship out the door”? There’s no correct answer. Some people won’t compromise their talent or principles to be more effective; some people will.

What I’d like to suggest here is that we shouldn’t think of these decisions in terms of compromise. That suggests an inauthentic choice, something that’s not true to our beliefs and goals. Instead, I’d like to posit that these choices are easier to understand and make if we have a clearer idea of the reputation we’re trying to build for ourselves.

Personally, I’m in a position in my career where I can do a lot to shape my reputation. I write books, articles, and blog posts and give speeches and interviews, all of which allow me to deliver a thoughtful message about the reputation I want for myself. I’m also clear about what I want my reputation to be: I want people to think of me as someone who’s extremely effective in helping successful leaders achieve positive, lasting change in behavior. I don’t want to be just good in my field. I want a reputation as one of the best. And to be considered one of the best, I don’t have a high margin for error.

Partly because of my reputational goal, many decisions in my career boil down to: Will it make me look smarter or make me become more effective? I always vote for effective. I’m not looking to be known as the smartest person with the most sophisticated theory about helping people change. I want to be known as the guy who is effective at helping people change.

For example, many years ago, I was asked to work one-on-one with a senior executive at one of the world’s largest and most admired companies. I had worked at fairly big companies before, but this was far and away the biggest, most prestigious assignment of my life. The people with whom I’d be working would position me on a whole new level. The fact that this benchmark company called me instead of another executive coach was not only flattering but proof that I was nearing my target reputation. The executive in question was a smart, motivated, high-performing, deliver-the-numbers, arrogant know-it-all who had neared the top of the corporate pyramid despite serious interpersonal flaws. He was in charge of the company’s most profitable division, which should have made him a corporate MVP and first in line to succeed the CEO. My job was to see if I could smooth out some of his rough behavioral edges.

I conducted my usual 360-degree feedback interviews with the executive’s colleagues. My explanation of the results was met with a brusque brush-off, suggesting that no matter what I said, this man would never accept that he needed to change. He just didn’t care.


I had a choice to make: Do I accept the assignment or walk away? A part of me—the part that wanted the top people at the company to think I was smart enough to run with their crowd—was tempted to take it on. Success would be a long shot. But hey, I told myself, no risk, no reward.

Another part of me—the part keeping an eye on my reputational objectives—knew that I would be jumping into an empty grave if I worked with this impossible executive. If I couldn’t actually help him change, I would fail the assignment, which in turn would brand me as ineffective. In the end, I walked away, but not before telling the CEO my reasons. The result: While dropping the job might have implied that I wasn’t up to the task, it turned out to be a good move—the company later dismissed the executive, and the CEO praised me for having the courage to walk away from a potentially lucrative assignment.

Smart or effective? When you have to choose and your reputation is on the line, opting for the latter may actually cement the former. Remember this smart/effective distinction the next time you face a career decision. Many of us, as I mentioned, are clueless about our reputations, so it makes sense that even fewer of us think about the long-term reputational impact when we make a decision. We’re thinking short-term needs instead: Does my choice “take it to the next step,” or make me look proactive, or get my boss off my back, or bring in some quick cash, or make me look like I’m outrunning my peers? These are all variations on the same question: “Am I smart enough?” It’s not the same question as, “Does this choice add or detract from my long-term reputation?”

 

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