Brilliant until proven otherwise.
That seemed to be the rule at every employer where I was in upper management. For some reason, the newest senior manager hired from the outside always seemed to walk in the door with a halo circling above his or her head.
Until it faded.
Sometimes it took only a few days, other times it would be a gradual process over years. But fade, it did -- in every case. And usually there were identifiable reasons for this. Sometimes as obvious as a major error in judgment on a critical project. Other times as innocuous as a misused word, or failing to grasp someone else's point quickly.
I've often thought about this strange phenomena. Is it universal, or have I just stumbled across particularly fertile ground for it? Is this rooted in human nature, or perhaps in particular person's weakness? Is there any way to prolong the period of perceived genius? Can it be exploited?
It seems to me that this "presumption of brilliance, and search for mistakes" has its basis in insecurity. The initial reaction is one of caution. "I wonder if she's smarter than I am?" is perhaps the underlying question on the minds of insecure peers and/or bosses. The possibility pricks fragile egos, and leads to a lot of overbearing examination by those feeling threatened. Then an event pops up which allows those destabilized by "the company's newest and smartest person" to conclude: "Naw, he's not that clever." Such an observation might be the result of a simple miscue, the misreading of a situation, or an inconsequential error. The "audience," however, is searching for just this subtle indication of inferiority.
In some cases things stop there -- the new guy is no longer a threat, and can be considered "one of the group." In others, I've seen peers, bosses, an even subordinates, begin to circle the person like vultures, hoping to pick him or her apart piece by piece. It can be a disgusting display.
In one instance, one of my subordinates entered the company with the familiar genius halo, but soon afterward made a misinterpretation of a remark during a discussion with one of the senior corporate accountanting staffers. Soon after this, I overheard the accountant whisper to the CEO, "Fred doesn't understand financial statements." That led to a prolonged torture session at a subsequent presentation over the subject of proper inventory reserves by the CFO and CEO. Probably the CEO verifying the "truth" about Fred.
The conclusion: Fred was a dope.
Of course, I had hired Fred for his project management skills, not to be an accountant. The label stuck, and Fred struggled for years afterward, trying to shed an irrelevant and cruel reputation. Eventually, he quit and moved on -- probably the right move.
I've observed this pattern repeated time and time again, and have never seen anyone successfully avoid an ultimate demotion from the "genius" category. Sometimes they stop at "average," but often the demotion becomes an express ticket to the "idiot" category.
But some senior managers stay geniuses longer, and others are able to dramatically exploit this phase of their time in a new company.
Prolonging your brilliance seems to mainly depend on avoiding mistakes. Typical advice seems to hold up well here -- avoid topics you aren't strong in, carefully consider your comments before speaking, and know when to keep quiet. I've also seen a few people succeed by boldly offering new, and sometimes controversial, opinions. This has to be done carefully and confidently, and not everyone can pull it off. If you can, however, it is likely to cause peers to continue to wonder about out (or maybe fear) you.
If you are willing to take big risks, the early period of employment is the perfect time to propose and implement big changes. During this period, you are much less likely to be denied the opportunity to go forward with controversial projects -- after all, you're a genius! While the risks are high with big changes, and you have to make a fast read of the situation in the business to get it right, those early days offer a huge opportunity to make your mark in the company. Just remember, if you screw it up, the mark will be a big ugly one.
Be aware of the "genius" halo, and manage it as best you can to your advantage, because it won't be long before it fades away. 11.4
Other Recent Posts:
- Winning Corporate Battles
- The Tone at the Top
- Expressing Interest in a Promotion
- When You Threaten to Quit...
- We're All Hypocrites. Except Me, Of Course?
If you are intriqued by the ideas presented in my blog posts, check out my other writing.
Non-Fiction: NAVIGATING CORPORATE POLITICS
Novels: LEVERAGE, INCENTIVIZE, and DELIVERABLES -- note, the ebook version of DELIVERABLES is on sale for a limited time at Amazon for $4.99. These are all based on extensions of my basic experiences in the world of corporate management.