Great CEOs Give Their Teams Freedom To Choose

Great CEOs Give Their Teams Freedom To Choose

Something surprised me the other day. A colleague, who had (sniff!) previously left to work for a big company, told me the reason she’d returned to my company, ghSMART. She’d left a couple of years ago to become a senior executive at a top-tier fashion company. It sounded like a dream job at the time, but within two years, she came back to our firm.

I was happy she’d returned, but it was a mystery to me why she’d decided to come back. When I asked her while sitting next to her at our firm’s annual summit, she paused for a second. “The real reason is our culture of freedom here at ghSMART,” she said. “It’s not like that in Corporate-land. There was no freedom there. Meetings, meetings, meetings. And if anybody above me, or below me, called a meeting, I had to be there, as their culture requires. It’s like nobody trusted anybody to think or act on their own! Everything was by committee. Drove me nuts. Here, we’re way more empowered to make decisions, to use our talents, to team up with colleagues when it makes sense and to take initiative and make things happen for our clients.”

Her story made me feel good. As chairman and founder of ghSMART, one of my two big goals for starting our company was to provide a career “home” to exceptionally talented people. At one point, I had to make a key decision about our culture. I had to pick between hiring not-so-smart people and boxing them in with excessive meetings, processes and bureaucracy to limit their ability to do damage; or to hire smart people, as in ridiculously smart and capable people, and give them the freedom to make choices.

In the end, I chose the path of “talent and freedom,” of course. It just made a lot more sense to me. I worked to create a culture in which my team had the freedom to choose which clients to serve; which types of problems to help them solve and how to go about doing that; to choose their own career path at the firm; and to choose which colleagues to work with along the way.

This decision wasn’t original though. It came from watching some of the best CEOs in the world hire the most skilled folks in business and learning about the results those employees produced when they were given an unusual amount of freedom to make decisions. It became clear to me over the years that the mark of a truly great CEO is the ability to hire super-talented people and give them the opportunity to forge their own path. The best leaders are able to attract the best talent and give their colleagues the choice to make life-and-death decisions swiftly and effectively.


Geoff Smart is chairman and founder of ghSMART. Geoff is co-author, with his colleague Randy Street, of the New York Times best-selling book, Who: A Method For Hiring, and the author of the #1 Wall Street Journal best seller, Leadocracy: Hiring More Great Leaders (Like You) Into Government. Geoff co-created the Topgrading brand of talent management. He is the founder of two 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations. SMARTKids Leadership Program™ provides 10 years of leadership tutoring and the Leaders Initiative™ seeks to deploy society’s greatest leaders into government. Geoff earned a BA in economics with honors from Northwestern University, and an MA and Ph. D in psychology from Claremont Graduate University.