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 Ian Siegel, co-founder and CEO of ZipRecruiter.
There are some skills that can’t be taught. For example, those who excel in street smarts have situational awareness. They’re able to assess their surroundings, adapt to new environments, and thrive in diverse situations. These individuals also often understand people’s motivations on a subconscious level and have the innate ability to empathize with others.
In my early 20s, I found myself thrust into the role of managing a 50-person engineering team. I had neither a computer science degree nor any previous management experience. I succeeded because of one, and only one, innate skill: listening. Listening to stakeholders to understand the root of what they wanted, and in turn, listening to software developers coming up with solutions. Soon, I found myself so successful, it took me nearly ten years to break out of my role running engineering teams. Does that mean I was a great technology manager? No! I was terribly miscast. Yes, I could do it, but I lacked the fundamental training to be great at the job.
On the other hand, book-smart individuals are subject matter experts. They have a wealth of category information and best practices at their disposal, which allows them to find solutions faster, and in many cases, structure teams for optimal efficiency. In the working world, book-smart people are usually capable of making extraordinary individual contributions and solving the hardest business problems. At ZipRecruiter, for example, we hired a search expert who applied a modern programming technique to our job alert program. Overnight we saw a 30% increase in applications from job seekers. It took the programmer less than a month to revolutionize our product, but it was years of prior training that gave him the tools to do so. Therefore, the book-smart versus street-smart value question still remains. Which one is better, career-wise? The truth is that we all need to play to our strengths.
In the working world, regardless of company size or industry, successful organizations have a blend of both types of employees. This isn’t a coincidence. The complementary effect drives cutting-edge businesses forward and ensures the ongoing development of expanding fields. Last year, we moved one of our best data scientists into a new role: managing our customer support team. Customer support is a place where street-smart people tend to excel because a lot of the job centers around empathy — people skills matter a lot.
Our data scientist measured everything — frequency of complaints, time to issue resolution, and he even went so far as to build models that predict when a customer would complain in the future. He then had the team proactively contact those customers, which had a big impact on customer satisfaction. Book smarts sound pretty good, right? Well, there’s a flip side…
A while back, one of our product managers told us that we didn’t sell to employers the right way. After a user pushed our “post to job boards” button, he wanted to add an animation showing the job being distributed to more than 100 job sites. (In actuality, it happens instantly.) Our collective gut told us that making a customer wait longer to accomplish a task wasn’t a great plan. There was resistance internally, but ultimately we ran a test with the idea. Lo and behold, the animation was a big win. This street-smart product manager intuitively understood our customers’ psychology. They wanted to “see” our product work.
Given this reality, a word of advice to job seekers: your value is not solely measured by years of education or experience, and your progress will be measured by achievements, not words on a resume. Recognize your strengths and play to them. If you’re a people person with great psychological insight into others, maybe sales is a perfect match. If you’re a numbers person who has a passion for finding patterns in data, think about pursuing engineering or accounting. As long as you leverage your skill set, rather than trying to change or ignore it, you’ll position yourself for success.