How to Add Value to Someone Smarter Than You

The vast majority of my brief life has been spent with people significantly smarter and more experienced than me. The obvious example is the business world where I interact with people twice my age (twice as wise, twice as experienced) several times a day. The effect of such immersion is awesome: I’ve been on personal growth steroids for the past seven years.

But even in non-business activities I have been surrounded by more talented people. My AAU basketball teammates from a few years ago are now playing on national television for Bobby Knight’s Texas Tech team or for Ben Braun’s Cal team. The staff at the high school newspaper which I edited were all rockstars. The college matriculation of the other editors gives some sense: Duke, Stanford, Harvard, Washington University, Brown, and Swarthmore College.

So I have devoted a significant amount of energy trying to answer this question: How do you add value in a conversation or in a team when the other person(s) is more experienced and more expert at the task or topic at hand?

Here’s one approach. Say you’re meeting with a CEO who really knows his stuff about early stage technology business. If you’re just a novice at that topic, you could spend the whole time talking about what you know but the CEO might not — say, religion. The upside here is you offer a refreshing change of pace to the CEO and you get to show off your intellect, however narrow. The downside to this approach is you miss out on the opportunity to pick the brain of the expert CEO on what he knows best.

Another, better approach, one I brainstormed with Stan James (CTO, Lijit) last night while gorging on sushi at Hapa, is to directly confront the topic area of the expert. Sure, she may know 100x more than you on the subject, but you can still add value. First, ask her to explain it to you. Believe it or not, people like feeling expert and when you explain something you teach yourself at the same time. Second, re-interpret what she tells you in your own words. Use your own metaphors to illustrate the point. This will prove helpful to the expert since we’re always looking for new ways to explain old ideas.

On the basketball court, I tried to maximize the teamwork of the group and the individual potential of each player. With the newspaper, I tried to facilitate everyone’s intelligence and idea generation. And in business meetings, I’d like to think that I’m now at a place where the value exchange is absolutely bi-directional in most of my meetings with scary smart people — even when I confront the other person’s topic of expertise — by asking dumb questions and re-interpreting.

How do you think about this issue?

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