Is there a more threatening word than "brilliant"? Taught to revere the truly exceptional in our midst--the mathematical geniuses, the stellar entrepreneurs, the literary phenoms--I am often paralyzed by the very idea of brilliance, especially as most people statistically speaking, including myself, do not possess it.
Imagine how intimidating it would feel to hang out with, or even work for one of the brightest players in the battle against malaria. Moncef Slaoui earned a PhD in molecular biology and immunology from the Universite Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium, and completed postdoctoral studies at Harvard Medical School and Tufts University School of Medicine, Boston. Slaoui has authored more than 100 scientific papers and presentations. As chairman of global vaccines at GlaxoSmithKline, and also a member of its corporate executive team and board of directors, Slaoui is radically reforming the big-pharma research and development process, and currently spearheads key initiatives to eradicate malaria from the planet.
While Slaoui has an Old world modesty and shuns "brilliant" as an adjective to describe himself, he does believe that many people in the workplace aspire to perform brilliantly, and in doing so accomplish great and unexpected things for themselves, their companies, and the larger world.
In my interview with Slaoui, I learned that we mere mortals should not bemoan our ordinariness, but rather we should apply his principles so that the most "ordinary" among us can, if we put our minds to it, perform brilliantly.
1. Assemble the best team.
"I can't function outside of a team," Slaoui claims. "I absolutely need to work with other people all the time, and connect strongly with them. I have very personal interactions, and I like to be close to the people I work with, have some form of friendships, something beyond professional objectives." Slaoui reminds us that the most successful teams are not only those featuring the most diverse skill sets, but also those that share passions and values.
2. Talk less, think more.
Slaoui believes effort is often misdirected when problem solving. "Don't spend your life analyzing the problem. Spend your energy thinking of solutions. One of my characteristics," Slaoui states, "is I always quickly and diligently start to think about solutions, by definition not to the 'nth' degree. When you think about solutions it gives you energy to try. Talking about the problem sucks the energy out."
3. Seek inspiration in unexpected places.
Slaoui makes clear that even the most fertile mind needs outside stimulation to work at its peak. The more diverse the mind, the more likely it is to come up with creative, innovative, and unexpected solutions. Don't neglect things like reading books, travel, lectures, and other activities that broaden your horizons and teach you how to think in unexpected ways. Slaoui enjoys reading 18th-century French literature but can just as easily learn from a simple activity such as gardening.
4. Have a plan.
Be prepared. Have ready access to resources. Slaoui urges that in starting a big project, one should be able to "see the starting point and the end. Not in granularity of plan, but in rationale ... it's almost palatable, it makes [your plan] so vivid that then [your] belief it can work and will work is very big."
5. Trust your intuition.
People who believe in themselves and their own ideas appear to be smarter and more competent than those who vacillate and never drive forward. "I really trust my gut," Slaoui says. "In many cases, I tell the people I need to take with me on a journey that I can't really explain rationally what it is, but that's what my gut tells me. Until we prove it, being transparent about [intuition] has been influential and it does take a certain courage; 'I can't explain it as a scientist, but that's where I think we should go.'" Often intuition works better than you'd think; study after study has proved that instincts are at least as crucial to our work as outright strategy, and maybe more.
6. Focus on what you do well.
Slaoui respects the people who know their abilities and limits. "Don't try to be perfect. Many people think they're not good enough and therefore don't try, or even talk about it. In a humble way, don't spend your day thinking about what your shortfalls are, think about what you do well. You will be happier because you're succeeding: You have an impact, people appreciate you, and there's a positive spiral."
7. Manage energy.
Slaoui puts great value on being aware of the energy both in and around you. "Think about what sucks your energy out and avoid it or manage it." Slaoui confirms his own practice: "I get up every morning, I exercise; it gives me more energy. Other people may have something else. Identify what gives you energy and do it. Avoid it or confine what sucks the energy out. Energy is at the center of performance."
8. Let your actions speak for themselves.
Slaoui admires people who say little about their work and let the results do the talking. He believes that humility goes a long way, more than the constant self-promotion that runs rampant in today's work environment. Slaoui explains his own approach. "I didn't sit somewhere and say, I want to do something great. That said, I did say to myself, I want to impact people's lives in a way that improves their livelihood."
9. Be willing to fail.
Slaoui has been working with GSK since 1988, so he's seen quite a few stops and starts in vaccine development. Early failures in malaria vaccines (and the AIDS vaccine) later led to breakthroughs in treating Ebola and drastically reduced time and saved countless lives. Slaoui counsels, "You're smarter than you think. People are less genius than you'd imagine." He explains that you have to try in order to succeed, even if it means failure at first. Slaoui shares this example: "One of the languages I speak is French. My wife is American, and she says she'll learn French. Ten years later I say to her, 'You know a lot of vocabulary, why don't you speak?' She says, 'I'm afraid I'll make a mistake.' You can't have perfect French without talking. Don't be afraid of failing and just try it."