The Best Sentence I Ever Read About Managing Talent


“It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” –Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs was a pretty smart dude (to understate wildly), so it doesn’t surprise me he’d have smart things to say about talent management. But I have to say when I came across the above thought yesterday, I felt it was the best single sentence I’ve ever read about management.

One of the key challenges that smart people, of whom business has many, face in management on a daily basis is subjugating their own ego. Subjugating their own ego so they can get better results for their organization than if they didn’t.

Because it’s a natural tendency for folks who are expert in one thing to feel they’re expert in all things. Which can quickly lead to nettlesome micromanagement – an easy recipe for frustrating up-and-coming talent in its own right. But the best managers know that it’s not about their personal accomplishment but about their team’s – which involves fully unleashing the talent of the smart people all around them. Which I believe is exactly what Mr. Jobs was saying.

“Tell them what to do, not how to do it”

This whole train of thought reminded me of an old story. A long time ago a very creative, accomplished woman whom I was managing grew weary of my overinvolvement (aka, meddling micromanagement) in her projects. One day to her everlasting credit she took me aside and said to me, “You know, when you’re managing creative people you’ll get the best results by telling them what to do, not how to do it.” A little different twist than the Jobs quote, but a similar sentiment. Point being, don’t prescribe solutions but let creative people figure things out. They’ll find a better way. My direct report was 100% right and I never forgot what she said. In many instances leadership is best served by providing sound strategic direction and then getting the heck out of the way.

Later in my management career at one point I believe I was probably the only person in our company managing two people with PhDs. They knew a lot more than I did about most things, and though I’m sure I sometimes screwed up I did try to bear in mind what the woman noted above told me. As a manager “it’s not about you,” but it is about optimizing talent.

Which judging by his results Steve Jobs understood a whole lot better than the rest of us.


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