Are You a Genius or a Genius Maker?

I know of a Stanford professor who is a brilliant thinker and renowned researcher. The unintended consequence is that he is so busy publishing papers, books and blogs that he has a tendency to overlook the brilliance in his students. Specifically, his PhD candidates confess to having no face time with their highly regarded academic advisor. He is so focused on building his own academic empire that he isn’t available to build the careers of the people around him.

Never Turn Away a Question. Contrast this with the late Rajeev Motwani, a professor of Computer Science at Stanford University. Despite being described by Ron Conway, a renowned technology investor, as “one of the smartest people who has ever existed in Silicon Valley” Motwani developed a reputation for building other people’s genius. The Guardian newspaper explained that he would, “Never turn away a question. [He would go out of his] way to help any entrepreneur who asked him for advice.” He was, “Confident, but not brash.”

My Curiosity Was Piqued. One former student wrote, “Every time I saw Rajeev, my curiosity was piqued, my mind was challenged.” He continued to explain that Motwani spent so much time with him and was so focused, it was as though “it was just me. [But] then I came to realize Motwani was giving countless others the same attention.” That this [awkward] former student was Sergy Brin, of Google fame, speaks volumes about the kind of impact a Multiplier can have.

Google Emerged. The impact wasn’t just general, it was practical too. When Brin wanted to understand more of the intricacies of data mining, an area that Rajeev had deep knowledge in, he organized a group that would meet regularly on the subject. Brin adds, “Later, when Larry and I began to work together on the research that would lead to Google, Rajeev was there to support us and guide us through challenges, both technical and organizational. Eventually, as Google emerged from Stanford, Rajeev remained a friend and advisor as he has with many people and startups since.”

Leading@Google. When Liz Wiseman and I were invited to speak at the Leading@Google series here, it was fascinating to reflect on the impact of Motwani’s Multiplier leadership. Is it possible that there wouldn’t be a Google today if Motwani had been focused only on his own genius? When we think of intelligence as a hierarchy we tend to think of genius taking the top spot. But someone like Motwani challenges that assumption. At the top of the intelligence hierarchy sits the Genius Maker not the Genius.

Multiplier Practice: Be curious about other people’s interests and interested in other people’s curiosity. Ask people, “What would you like to learn about?” or “What are you interested in?” Or simply pause to be perceptive. Ask yourself, “What does this person read about without being asked?” or “What subjects does this person talk about in animated terms?” Follow up with a few questions to learn more about what they know and why these subjects have a gravity pull for them. Then when natural opportunities arise where their interests map to business issues you can make the connection for them and tap into their natural curiosity.

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