Look at who doesn't care if you're smart in business: Customers value products and services that solve their problems. Employees want to pay their rent and enjoy their jobs. Suppliers want to get paid.

But the big concern is investors.

In particular, why do investors call people smart?

First, why do people call you smart?

Would you prefer customers to call you smart or say they love your products and recommend them to others? I prefer they rave about my products and generate free sales.

They prefer to rave about your products too. They want you to improve their lives. They want you to be many things before they care if you're smart.

They prefer you listen to them, that you deliver on time, that you're sensitive to their needs, and so on.

People describe you by what they consider important. Calling you smart means you didn't deliver on what they value more. It's the best they see in you.

Investors who call you "smart" or "intelligent" before what they value more, like "effective leader" or "great teammate,"  imply they think you solve abstract problems better than business problems.

Business problems aren't abstract.

They may already be thinking of how to replace you if you can't deliver on practical problems that people don't get called smart for because textbooks don't cover them.

They may be right!

The rocket scientist in the picture above looks like he could solve some hard problems.

But does he look like a leader? Does he look like he could bring the team together when times got tough?

A Personal Story

I started my first company out of graduate school.

People called me a "rocket scientist" and other smart things because I was getting a PhD in Astrophysics. I felt proud.

Looking back, I see that people wondered, "what do rockets have to do with running a business?" I wish I had felt humble, which would have helped me learn.

When we hit a recession, I lacked the skills to solve the problems we faced, not the ones we planned for. My team was worried, which abstract problem-solving didn't help with.

Looking back, I see some people calling me smart were wondering if I could handle the difficult times--and preparing for how to protect their interests if I couldn't.

How do I know? Because they did! At my expense, when investors exercised their control.

Then I got the humility I lacked before.

A Solution

Figure out what people do value in business.

Get people seeing those parts about you.

In business I value results and teamwork near the top. I strive to deliver both and I want to do business with others sharing those values and goals.

I learned to respond to people calling smart with

"I don't know if I'm smart, but people tell me I get the job done and they work with me again."

I don't claim it's the best possible response, but it's short and covers some important points: I don't disagree with them, I report what others say about me, not my opinion of myself, and I focus the attention on what I value.

More Solution

Only changing the words of the conversation would be superficial.

The statement also puts my values and behavior in the spotlight, holding me publicly accountable. People do what they are accountable for.

I don't know if I deliver the best in the world or if I'm the best teammate in the world, but I'm more so now for directing how people identify me to business skills that matter.

Published on: Jan 27, 2016
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