A President's Reflections

Asking Better Questions

Posted on October 12, 2020

Learning is an act of humility. In my experience, our best learning often comes when we are at our worst, when we have been most humbled. I’ve often learned more in my stumbles than in my victories and there was some hubris in every instance. Whether our foray into China, launching a start-up, or rapid scaling, I thought I knew what I was doing. In each case, I had read, examined the data, and spoken with the experts and then made a persuasive case to the Board. In all of these instances, I was pretty sure I had unlocked the key to success. 

But I’ve learned rather late in my career to never trust those moments when I think, “Well, I’ve got it. I’ve figured this out.” In fact, this has become an alarm bell for me, where once it was a comfort. It almost always means one has stopped learning

On a recent walk with my daughter Hannah and her husband Ted, I posed the question, “What is college for?” They had just completed doctorates at Stanford, were in their first academic jobs, and are among the smartest young people I know (probably parental bias at work there, I know). Having just written dissertations, they were in that blissful moment when they had read everything in their field and were probably more up to date than most of the luminaries whose work they had read. They had learned everything in their respective areas of focus. Their answer to the question of “What is college for?” was “To ask better questions.”  

Hannah studied neuroscience as an undergraduate. If physics was where all the interesting questions were being studied in the first half of the 20th Century and biology was where all the interesting questions were being asked in the second half of the 20th Century, neuroscience and the study of the human brain is where all the really smart young people want to study in this new century. The media has been full of stories of breakthroughs in brain science, but when I one day said to Hannah, “It seems like we are answering all the big questions about how our brains work,” she replied, “Oh dad, no. Every time we answer one question, we raise ten more fascinating questions for which we don’t have a clue.” Learning leads to better questions.

This understanding has altered the way I think about hiring and assessing talent too. Of course, I want the most expert people we can find. That’s table stakes and what we should expect of our process for hiring. By the time finalists come to me, I trust our process has confirmed their mastery of the skills needed for the job. What I really want to know is how a candidate learns. Do they talk like a learner? Do they ask good questions? I now routinely ask:

  • What are you learning these days?
  • Who are your thought partners?
  • How do you best like to learn?
  • What are you reading?
  • What have you learned in the last twelve months that has altered the way you do your work?
  • What are you learning during the pandemic?

The answers to those six questions speak volumes. We had a recent candidate for a key job who struggled with them, though she was quite expert at her work. Her thought partners were the three or four people with whom she worked most closely, which means she was not stretching her or their thinking. Her current learning was mastering a technical data tool, not around an interesting question. Mostly, she was so thrown by questions regarding learning that it was easy to see she was no longer a learner. 

People who are very good at their job can go a long time and yield great results for an organization, but if they are not learners, they will top out their value add at some point.  Certainty and expertise are a powerful combination communicating command and an ability to get things done. Until they don’t. Usually because the world or their organization has changed, but they have not. The best leaders I know keep learning and expanding their skill set, evolving their expertise.  

After a day devouring Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini’s new book, Humanocracy, I am rethinking my sense of leadership expertise – the conceit that leaders know more (which may or may not be true) – to think about leaders as orchestrators of learning. That is, leadership as an act of unleashing the knowledge, creativity, and collective learning of the organization as a whole. We have a number of efforts happening right now which allow us to play with this idea. The communities of practice in our DEI work is a great example, where we are not being led in a top down fashion, but instead bringing people together who have passion and good thinking about the work no matter their position or authority. Leading in this case is not about knowing more but setting up the conditions for the collective success and meaning making of the group. 

Just before the pandemic, I was in Kyoto, Japan and visited Shigeharu Cutlery, one of the oldest knife shops in the country. It’s a modest little store where Mr. Shigaru, a 24th generation knife maker, still hand forges exquisite knives and talks (through a translator) in great detail about the process, traditions, and care of the knives. While his mastery is almost unequaled, there is in his work a sense of the unanswered question. There is more to learn and better knives to make. Obsessives don’t stop, even if they know so much more than almost anyone else. They are inherent learners, as are the best leaders. I’m almost certain.

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