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Why it's good to be the shortest man in the room – and other lessons learned

By Jill Hamilton on August 27, 2014 in Company News

Jeff CEO Blog

In July, I had the opportunity to be part of a panel of CEOs, an annual event with Urbandale's genYP group. Adam Obrecht, @adamobrecht, moderated this panel that also included Joel Duncan, @MeritResources; Janette Larkin, @BusinessRecord; and Dr. Melissa Billings of Vision Park Family Eye Care. It was a great group of resources and I was reminded about the smart leaders in the Des Moines area.

A lot of solid advice was shared based on questions from the group – more than I have room to capture here, but I've paraphrased a few of the highlights below. Some of what is below came from my comments, but most of it came from the other panelists.

Life is Rarely Linear

Think of your career as a lattice, not a ladder. Life is more interesting that way. Sometimes new situations take you out of your comfort zone. When that happens, diagnose your own “uncomfortableness.” Evaluate whether it's a good discomfort or not … and then decide to work through it or jettison it.

Gain Experiences, not Experience

Note the “s”.When life presents opportunities to try different things, do. Find out what you're passionate about outside of work interests. When you meet people, talk to them about these. On a more personal level, I aim to have an interesting conversation with someone outside my industry at least once a week. Hiring is best when it's “and 1,” meaning that while interviewing, consider not only whether someone can do this job, but one more. Be thinking about next opportunities and new experiences for your employees.

Engaging Employees

It's not just about dollars. Employees who feel valued, needed and challenged are more likely to stay than to chase a larger paycheck. At the same time, have a good team and make sure you get the right people on the bus, as Jim Collins would say.

Work Isn't Always 8:00 to 5:00

For most knowledge workers, we pay people to achieve results, not to punch the clock for a specific amount of hours. Work/life balance is never 50/50, sometimes it's 80/20 (personally or professionally) and then it's 20/80. The key is being there to serve. By being flexible with specific hours – but having enough overlapping time for collaboration – companies have found increased productivity and decreased attrition. Get your job done, hit your number, it's all good.

Be the Shortest Man in the Room

Joel shared that one of the best pieces of advice he had received was to be the shortest man in the room. Obviously that is not a literal comment, but the intent that you will be more successful if you surround yourself with people more talented that you. It will also make you strive harder to get better.


It would be hard to list all of the people, books and articles that have influenced this group, but here are a few:

  • Blue Ocean Strategy … swim farther out, find clear water, clear vision to see where your business should go.
  • The classic #HBR article, “Who's Got the Monkey” encourages people to avoid fixing problems others bring to them (what I sometimes called upward delegation).
  • Team of Rivals … how Lincoln assembled a team out of people fantastic in their role who didn't agree with each other and saved the country.
  • Daniel Pink's Drive challenges historic ideas about motivation. Instead, he focuses on autonomy, mastery and purpose.
  • Stepping out of our own world, such as reading non-business books. Another great example of changing your perspective came from Joel who talked about joining an investment club. Learning to think like an investor helped him understand how companies are valued and what drives that valuation.

Just a few tips from a great group of leaders. I was reminded that no matter your experience (or experiences), you can always learn something from people like Joel, Janette and Melissa.