I work with smart people all of the time.  They are often products of the best schools in the world, have impressive accomplishments, and can do super mental gymnastics.  If you haven’t watched a Harvard MBA do a mental triple somersault with a twist in the layout position, you really ought to.  It’s stunning.  And I confess that I love these people.
But sometimes smart people do the darnedest things when hiring employees. Here’s one.

When evaluating a job candidate, smart people often have a short-hand that sums up their thoughts. “She’s crazy smart!” They actually use a different adjective, but this is a family-friendly blog and I never know when my mom might drop in for a read.

Or if they don’t like someone, they might say, “He’s not that smart.” This is the kiss of death.  You can be awkward, ugly, or downright rude.  But don’t be “not that smart.”

There is plenty of evidence assembled by the smart people that intelligence is a key factor to success.  But here’s the question I’m sometimes courageous enough to ask: “What kind of smart does this job require?”

Anyone who has hired employees will recognize the pitfalls of trying to nail down what kind of smarts they need. I have a friend who has been very successful in the publishing world.  Once, she was asked to do a first interview of a highly recommended candidate for one of the biggest news websites in the world. The kid launched into a speech on a 14th century French play and seemed so introverted that she recommended against hiring him thinking he was a bad personality fit as well as better suited to graduate school than a popular website. Fortunately, someone else saw his talents and he went on to become a star business reporter, known for his focused and thorough research.

If you’ve hired more than one employee, you recognize that story.  It’s easy to be imprecise about what kind of “smart” we are looking for when hiring.  Here’s a starter list:

  • Analytically/Technically Smart – These whizzes can weave magic with spreadsheets and numbers. They can model out a business with breathtaking elegance. They can take overwhelming data and turn it into meaningful information.  They can discover the algorithm that will make your product do backflips for your customers. They’re smart. You want them in finance, R&D, and IT.
  • Book Smart – These brainiacs know all of the right answers based on the established research.  They can check and double-check and yes, triple-check your facts and figures to be sure your answer is supported in the literature. You want them on your legal team. They just might find that one thing cracks the case or covers your backside.
  • People Smart – These geniuses are good at what a lot of academically gifted folks struggle with: dealing with people.  They have a natural read for how others are interacting and they can find ways to connect with almost anyone.  I have client who has made a considerable fortune largely based on being people smart.  He says he’s not that smart. Actually, he’s a genius at making connections with people and being genuinely friendly and helpful to them.  This means that he is probably 2-3 phone calls away from talking to virtually anyone of influence in our country. Now that’s smart. You want people like that on your Business Development team or your board.
  • Quick-on-Their-Feet Smart – When I started in consulting, my first boss used to joke about how important it was to have a good pair (or three) of “dancing shoes.”  He was pointing out that certain roles demand people who can think on their feet. They have to walk into situations and conversations with a general approach in mind, but then adjust on the fly with seeming ease.  They need to be able to see around corners in a conversation and know what to say and what not to say.  They’re smart. You want them on your sales or PR team.
  • Politically Smart – We all know there are two realities: how organizations say things get done and how they really get done. Politically smart people know both but they’re experts at the latter.  They can read where influence really lies in any situation and how to get powerful people moving in the same direction.  They figure out what matters to different constituents and they can shape options that turn into deals that turn into action.  They’re smart. You want them on your negotiation team and in any part of your company that drives significant change. (I’m looking at you, IT!)
  • Organizationally Smart – Any fast moving organization manages far too many details.  These people can cut through the clutter and bring order to the chaos.  They sort out what matters and find ways to make tasks work. They’re realists and keep us honest about what can be done.  They’re smart. You want them on your project management teams. And any executive lucky enough to have one as an admin will bite your hand off if you try to recruit theirs.
  • Wisdom Smart – Some situations just require experience.  You can be smart in any of the ways above, but without having seen it before you’re going to struggle.  Having been a successful salesperson isn’t the same as having successfully run a regional sales team.  Reading books about a start-up just isn’t the same as having effectively dealt with the chaos of rapid growth with scarce resources. Having visited Europe on vacation just isn’t the same has having lived and done business there. These people are smart.  You want a balance of people with battle scars along with your bright up-and-comers. One caveat: experienced and crusty don’t have to go together. Pick Wisdom Smart people who are humble enough to know that they can learn from those unburdened by experience.

Asking “is someone smart” is a smart thing to do.  It’s a simple way to screen a candidate. Just be sure that you’re not going from being simple to being simplistic. Know what you need and where you need it. Ask what kind of smart. You’ll never regret it.