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Why It's Wise to Hire People Smarter Than You

For one thing, it's the answer to your micromanagement problem.
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I received this note recently from an Evernote user in Japan:

Some of my team members complain that I micromanage. I think they have a valid point, but then I find myself having to tell them how to do even the smallest things. Do you have some general rule in role-sharing?  

I do. I'll tell you how I discovered it.

When I was just getting started as a CEO, I had a stupid way of thinking about employees. I thought that I was pretty good at doing a large number of things and I could do most of my employees' jobs better than they could. Of course, I didn't have time to do everything, so I would let people do their jobs even though I thought the results would probably be better if I did them. I would look at a programmer and think, "I could write that system faster, but I don't have the time." I would look at a sales guy and think, "I'm better at selling our product than he is, but I don't have time to go on every sales call." I'd look at the receptionist and think about my excellent phone manners.

And I was probably right. After all, why would anyone really great want to work for that kind of boss?

My thinking began to change when I started worrying about the amount of micromanagement I had to do. I looked at some employees that I never had to micromanage. There were two engineers, my co-founders, who didn't require any supervision. Why? They were obviously better programmers than I was. There was a designer who was so great, I couldn't even understand how he did the things he did. He didn't get much micromanagement, either.

So I woke up. And I made a new rule:

Everyone who reports to me has to be much better at doing his or her job than I could ever be.

I'm a pretty good programmer, but Dave Engberg, Evernote's CTO, is much smarter than I am about everything having to do with computer systems and architectures. Phil Constantinou, our VP of products, is great at planning, and running, a dozen complex product teams at the same time. I have a decent understanding of financials, but compared with Leonora Teng, our VP of finance, it feels like I can barely count to 10.

These are only a small fraction of the team. I interact with roughly 30 Evernote people on a daily basis, and I can say without hesitation that they all do their jobs better than I could hope to. Every time we have a discussion about work, I learn something.

This is a great way to manage, and it reduces a lot of stress. For example, we recently moved into a big, new office building and, as the result of a serious misunderstanding between the architects, the builders, and the city inspectors, our beautiful (and expensive) new sign got screwed up. Now we have a big building with no sign and no date for when the sign is supposed to show up.

I got really angry at this, and I stayed angry until I found someone in the company who was even angrier about the sign than I was, and who knew a lot more than I did about construction and building codes. And I put him in charge of fixing it. Now I'm not angry anymore; I know a smarter person is handling it.

Hiring people smarter than yourself is the long-term answer to your micromanagement problem. I take it very seriously, and I encourage all of my direct reports to apply it to their direct reports, all the way down the organization to the most junior levels. This is hard to do, and we're certainly not perfect at executing the rule all the time, but we come pretty close.

Many readers will have just realized that this means the CEO is the dumbest person at Evernote. Please don't tell my board.

Last updated: Mar 5, 2013

PHIL LIBIN | Columnist | Co-founder and CEO of Evernote

Phil Libin is the co-founder and CEO of Evernote, a Redwood City, California-based software company. In 2011, Evernote was Inc.'s Company of the Year.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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