'I don't need rocket scientists': A self-made billionaire describes the ideal employee

You don’t have to be a genius to work for Sam Zell.

In his book “Am I Being Too Subtle? Straight Talk From a Business Rebel,” Zell writes that he’s not necessarily looking for the smartest people to work at Equity Group Investments — there are other characteristics that are more important.

“There’s a baseline IQ level needed to work at my firm, but I don’t need rocket scientists,” he writes. “After that, what best predicts your success in my world is drive, energy, attitude, judgment, conviction, and passion. And an ability to cut to the center of an issue. I’d trade another twenty IQ points for those qualities any day.”

In fact, he writes, “I’ve had a number of brilliant people working for me who didn’t make it because they couldn’t grasp how to think about a deal.”

Zell expects his team to be willing to speak up. “I empower people. I love self-starters. I want people taking the initiative, pushing the edge, questioning, challenging,” he writes. “Of course, that kind of freedom comes with responsibility, so good judgment is critical. Fortunately, I’ve always been a pretty good judge of character.”

While he admits that he likes being the boss, he’s uninterested in being surrounded by “sycophants.”

Here’s Zell:

“The worst thing for me would be an environment where everybody just said, ‘OK, Sam, whatever you say,’ all the time. That would be death in an entrepreneurial environment. I tell people, ‘Don’t parrot back to me what I think, and don’t try to guess what I think. I want to know what you think.’ And I do that over and over again until the right answer pops out. When I sit in my office with a group of people, I don’t seek deference; I seek ideas. In that setting every person is on a level playing field. They also each have a stake in every endeavour.”

He says that he expects to hear from his team members, and that different, smart perspectives help everyone.

“I constantly challenge my people to ‘take me on,'” he writes. “I want them to challenge me just like I’m challenging them. We should both be able to succinctly defend our positions on any deal. It just makes us all smarter. I’m getting the most out of them, and they’re getting the most out of me. Win-win.”

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