Recently, while looking for a document on an archive drive, I stumbled across an unfinished draft from 2001. It features a “23-month-old son,” who today is almost 17. Ahhhh, the lessons we learn from little ones…
“Wha’zat? Wha’dis? Wha’zat? Wha’dis?” my 23-month-old son repeatedly asked on the way home today. Like water torture. “What’s what?” I politely responded, mumbling “God help me” prayers.
I could not tell what he was referring to, or if he was simply asking questions to hear himself talk. Just as my blood pressure was beginning to creep upward, I had a profound revelation. Most of Corporate America’s woes trace to one common root: the impatient parents of two-year-old children. Let me explain.
We parents are responsible for helping babies learn to talk. “What’s that over there?” we ask them, hoping they’ll respond with the correct vocabulary words. Then, one day, they start asking us the what, why, when, where and how questions. And they ask so many questions that we think we’re going insane.
We espouse that it’s important to ask questions and that no question is stupid. But in reality, we show impatience subtly or overtly, occasionally or every hour. Over time, we send the message, “You’d better be careful what you ask and when,” leaving children confused for life.
We instill in them an insidious habit—they begin assuming instead of asking. “I assume that animal over there is a horse, but I better not ask because Mom is driving right now.” Today, it’s horses. Tomorrow, it’s product features. “I assume customers will want this gadget because I like it. Since our stock is down, I’d better not ask my boss for money to do market research.”
Do You Tend To Ask Or Assume?
Even the most careful parents have impatient moments, and the impact on future employers is significant. Here’s an example. One summer during college, I handled reservations for a rafting company. One day, a woman called to book a group of 20 adults. “What is the name of your group?” I asked. “Triple A,” she responded. I dutifully recorded “AAA” in our logbook and went about my day.
Three months later, the equipment manager asked me for the day’s reservations. “The American Automobile Association is bringing in a group this morning.” My jaw dropped when the bus pulled into our driveway. Atlanta Amputees? We went to greet the bus driver, who cheerfully explained that all our guests were lower-extremity-challenged—some amputees, some paraplegics, even a quadriplegic. I don’t know if you’ve ever rafted before, but you use your feet and legs to hold yourself in. Without these anchors, it’s very easy to bounce overboard even in small waves.
My failure to ask one simple question—”AAA, the automobile club?”—resulted in revenue loss. We did figure out how to make the trip work, and the guests had fun, but the company lost money that day because we needed more raft guides than covered by our pricing to ensure customer safety.
What Holds You Back From Asking Questions?
Instilling the assumption habit is only a fraction of our parental crimes. We also teach fear of asking questions—and pride that feeds the fear. I graduated from college during a recession and was up to my eyeballs in student loans. The valedictorian of the previous year’s class was flipping burgers at a fast food restaurant, so I knew I couldn’t be picky about a job. My goal was simply to get the highest paying gig I could find, knowing that I could make a career change later.
The Travelers Insurance Company called me, following an on-campus visit. They said they wanted to interview me for a position as a Property Casualty Analyst. I dutifully read the company’s annual report, trying to understand enough about Property Casualty to ask intelligent questions. A recruiter met me and four other candidates at a ritzy breakfast spot. After giving us a brief overview of the company’s history, he pointed to three people and said, “You are going to interview with the Property Casualty Department today.”
I was not one of the three people. Another fellow and I were off to see the Group Department. “Whatever that is,” I thought. As we stood up to leave, my coat pocket caught the corner of the glass tabletop. The dishes and silver slid violently across the tipping table. Everyone in the restaurant turned to look.
“Great. I haven’t even started interviewing yet, and there’s no way they are going to hire me.” After that scene, I dared not ask what a “Group Department” was or what I’d be doing for a living. Ten days later, I received an offer letter. The position? Group Field Representative. Whatever that is. I accepted the offer and moved from Tennessee to Hartford, Connecticut.
Two weeks into the training program, I finally figured it out. I had accepted a position as a traveling salesperson. I’m an introvert.
Just As Employees Need To Ask Good Questions, So Do Managers
Did I mention the job came with a company car? The Travelers asked me to complete an application, which called for my driver’s license number and a history of any moving traffic violations. I took a driver’s education course in tenth grade, which included six lessons behind the wheel. Since I didn’t have access to a car, those six sessions represented my total driving experience—except the license test, for which my instructor had let me use his student-teaching car. I had a license, no violations, and had never driven on a freeway before. Using a company car seemed like the perfect way to build my driving skills.
Since we don’t always encourage our children’s inquiries, we need to ask ourselves, “Are they getting enough practice and the right kind of feedback to ask appropriately-timed questions that yield the meaty, accurate information needed for making good decisions, doing jobs well, and maintaining healthy relationships?”
Watch out Corporate America in 2021.
A Mom In 2001