The Leadership Insider network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question: Career wise, is it better to be book smart or street smart? is written by Amit Srivastav, president of Infinite.
In the technology industry, there is a time and a place for both book and street smarts, but it is heavily dependent on where you are in a business lifecycle. Many of the necessary leadership skills that drive a successful tech start up include personal finesse, the right timing, and out-of-the-box ideas. These are best served with street smarts, where entrepreneurs use their vision to develop the products and services that define what users will rely on in the future. This must be paired with the right time-to-market, when user base is at a critical size to support a business, and before the market is saturated with competition.
These are not necessarily components that necessitate — or can even wait — for book smarts. You don’t need the “right credentials” or even the “right” degree to be at the right place at the right time. Microsoft (MSFT), Apple (AAPL), and even Facebook (FB) succeeded not from what history or numbers said customers wanted but from new ideas that transformed how customers could relate to and use technology. Bill Gates saw his opportunity and dropped out of Harvard; Mark Zuckerberg followed a similar path to form Facebook.
This is not to dismiss book smarts outright. Both Gates and Zuckerberg were talented engineers as well. However, their achievements had to transcend these skills, as there were plenty of talented coders around them; their companies were pioneers in the market and created a demand for a product where none previously existed. This is the advantage of street smarts: to be able to see and capitalize on the right opportunities. At this stage, being book smart is useful, but being street smart is essential.
However, as a company matures into a market leader, that’s when book smarts should become a priority. The client base is bigger, the employee body is larger, and the financial stakes are higher. At this stage, there’s a need to get the best and the brightest to make sure both products and services are protected through copyright, accounting practices are in order, and the company is properly managed. This is when you need sharp and proficient attorneys, accountants, and engineers that are the best in their industry. If this is where one would like to develop their career and sharpen their skills, then book smarts is the advantage.
That being said, even attorneys or engineers must continue to evolve to stay relevant in their fields. Book smarts always should be balanced with an element of street smarts to prevent the business or your career from becoming stale. There is always a place to identify the next opportunity or the next innovation, but to be truly successful there’s also a need to navigate your career beyond what has been gleaned from a book.