The Guy With Three PhD's Who Failed

by William S. Frank, President/CEO of CareerLabĀ®

A medical device manufacturer called me because they were firing a top scientist. He was just too smart.

This guy had doctorates in chemistry, physics, and advanced materials. But that was just the start. He knew almost anything about every scientific field: astronomy, biology, geology, and oceanography. You name it, he knew it.
You could ask any scientific question and he would give the right answer. And that was just the problem. He knew everything and he let everyone know he knew everything. He was the first to raise his hand in any meeting. He argued with colleagues and proved them wrong, not just sometimes, but often.
As a result, the Vice President of Human Resources told me, “No one wants to work with him. We’ve tried coaching and performance improvement plans, and he defaults to being the smartest person in any room. Good people are resigning rather than work with him. We just can’t live with it anymore.”
And so, the guy with three Ph.D.s was asked to leave the company, and I was there to soften the blow.
In outplacement I told him, “You can’t keep doing this. You can’t always be the smartest person in the room. You have to let others participate and win, even if sometimes you know they’re wrong.”
And he said what many other outplacement candidates have said: “I wish someone had told me about this sooner, before I got fired. I could have fixed it.” And I said, “Yes, they told you dozens of times, and I’m telling you again.”
I pushed him around a lot, as executive coaches do, to get him to see himself and the world from many different angles. He had seen other people as furniture, merely characters in his play. And I had to teach him that there’s an entirely new world out there, the world of people. All his life he’d thought there was only one world: science.
This happened years ago; so the outcomes are fuzzy. I know he understood the message and planned to correct it. I know he was rehired in another high-level R&D job. I don’t know if he kept the job or where he is today. The fact that I haven’t heard from him is a good sign.
I use this example with A-students who prioritize task over people, or who think knowing everything and saying everything is a strength. To succeed in today’s teaming world, it’s not enough to be subject-smart; you also need to be people-smart.