The Key to Team Building: Being Able to Spot Intelligent People

First, whenever you are told you cannot even begin speaking without signing an NDA (non-disclosure agreement), you know you are in for an interesting conversation.

This recently happened to me. Someone, I can’t tell you who, apparently has been reading my posts on LinkedIn (definitely needs to get a life!), and invited me to apply for a position in a something, I can’t say what, devoted to helping people, I can’t say who or why, by showing that I know how to spot intelligent people. I can say that it is not for the purpose of team building, nor is it for any illegal, immoral or unethical purpose.

In order to be accepted to this whatever, I had to explain in an interview (nothing is in writing except the NDA) how I would spot an intelligent man or woman in a professional setting. (They emphasized the word “professional” which I took to mean a conference or networking event, and not a purely social occasion.) Since there is nothing in the NDA forbidding sharing responses, I’ve decided to share mine as it may help employers build teams, not to mention job applicants.

Given the nature of the challenge, I began by dismissing any appearance of insult. I made it clear that finding and eliminating “stupid” people would not result in the intelligent remaining. The answer was not the process of elimination. Just because someone in not “intelligent,” does not mean they are not “smart.” I’ve always liked the line, The difference between smart people and intelligent people is that smart people know how to get out of difficult situations that intelligent people don’t get into in the first place! But clever comments aside, “smart” is learned. You can be “book smart;” you can be “street smart;” and you can be both. But “smart” relates to knowledge. It is taught. “Intelligence,” on the other hand, relates to intellect and either you are born with it or you are not.

I took the challenge to mean that the test was purely visual and auditory based on the word “spot.” (By the way, they made it clear that they were not interested in social media so Facebook foolishness, etc. were irrelevancies. Put differently, there would be no opportunity for research.) I also assumed, and explained, that I was proceeding on the assumption that the intelligent people would be in the minority, perhaps even a minority of one for each gender, making them easy to “spot.” (Remember Sesame Street? “One of these things is not like the other…”) After explaining my approach, I suggested the following:

Let’s start with men so I can be vilified for being a misandrist before the feminists start piling on!

No intelligent man wears cologne or scented aftershave. If you are planning to meet with people, you don’t want to literally turn their stomachs because of what they consider to be an unpleasant odor. If you smell, no one is going to want to be around you.

Next comes what I referred to as the “absent minded professor.” This is the highly intelligent person who looks disheveled. But there is “messy” and there is “messy.” A man with his shirt tails sticking out from his trousers is different from a man who is wearing a suit that has survived a number of presidencies and looks it. The first is probably sloppy, not a trait of the intelligent, while the latter has more important things on his mind than buying new clothes. (It still fits; there are no holes; why spend the time and money?)

On the other hand, there is “well-dressed” and there is “well-dressed.” It’s one thing to wear a nice looking $300 suit and quite another to wear a $3,000 suit. Problem is, wealth has nothing to do with intelligence so for men, the brands they wear say nothing about their intelligence.

In other words, simply by looking at appearances, you really can’t spot an intelligent man.

The way to spot an intelligent man is by his behavior. Intelligent men do not “hit” on women in professional settings. Think of the last networking event you attended. Did you notice the attractive woman surrounded by four or five men? Trust me, those guys were not Mensa members! (Well, maybe they were, but you get my point!)

Next, intelligent men, attending conferences, always have a question to ask the panelists or speakers. They do not ask questions which put people on the defensive; they know how to word a question so as to initiate conversation not argument, and certainly never to cause embarrassment. (Basically, they don’t ask for justifications, dispute facts, or make accusations, they pose questions along the lines of, “I was interested to hear you say… because I always thought…” or “When you said…I was reminded of what…wrote in her book…”)

Perhaps more importantly, conversations with them are one-sided. They always listen more than they speak.

So much for men.

Women, in some ways, are easier. So let me go from misandrist to misogynist.

First, just like men, intelligent women do not wear perfume, the brands of their clothes means nothing, they don’t “hit” on men in professional settings, they have proper questions to ask panelists and speakers, and they listen more than they speak. In other words, as with men, so with women, behavior is key. But when it comes to clothing, you can easily spot intelligent women:

Intelligent women do not wear high heels. They are bad for the feet; bad for the legs; and bad for the back. (How “high” is “high?” I would say above two inches.) They may make women appear attractive in the western (as opposed to, let’s say, Asian/Indian) sense, but intelligent women don’t put looking good above their health. Also, no intelligent woman would place herself in harm’s way. You never know, especially today, when you are going to have to do a lot of walking, or maybe some running.

(I am reminded of the time when the boss asked to meet with a few of us at the main entrance to our facility. There were four of us, two men and two women. He said, “Let’s walk.” After about 20 minutes one of the women complained that her feet were “killing” her. She was wearing high heels. Not pleased, but considerate, the boss turned around and we started to walk back, albeit it slowly. To her credit, she never wore heels again to work.)

Intelligent women do not wear clothing that highlights their physical attributes. They want people, men and women, concentrating on their intellect and nothing else. (Similarly, intelligent women wear little if any makeup.)

That, dear readers, is basically what I said in my application to join the thing I can’t tell you about. What I can tell you is that I was accepted on the spot (by the two interviewers, one man and one woman) and then rejected them for reasons I can’t tell you about.

But the lesson is this: If you are building a team try to arrange for a professional gathering. Invite candidates to a reception to meet with staff and clients. Smell for perfume, etc., see what they wear, and, obviously, pay attention to how they behave. With whom do they spend most of their time? Executives? Senior management? Board members? Staff? Clients? Who do they ignore? There’s no right or wrong here (except maybe regarding those who they ignore which can indicate feelings of superiority); it all depends on the position for which they are being considered. But most importantly, listen. What questions are they asking? You can learn more about a person from what they say, or don’t say, than anything else. We can’t learn if we are talking. Want to hire intelligent people? Find those who speak little but say a lot.


Bruce Hurwitz is an executive recruiter and career counselor. He has helped scores (thousands if you include attendees at his presentations) of people, including veterans, not only change jobs but, on occasion, change careers. Having successfully transitioned from academia to non-profits to the recruiting industry, he has been there and done that!

Bruce is a recognized authority on job search and career issues, having been quoted in over 700 articles, appearing in some 500 publications, across the United States and in more than 30 foreign countries. His posts on LinkedIn have been read over 300,000 times and have garnered national and international media attention, including television appearances on Fox Business Network and Headline News (CNN).

In addition to serving on the Board of Directors of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce, he chairs their Entrepreneurs Network, hosts their weekly podcast – The Voice of Manhattan Business – and serves as an Ambassador.

An advocate for the protection of job seekers, visit the homepage of his website,, to read about questionable offerings of so-called job search assistance companies and to learn about his upcoming speaking engagements.