Sink or swim – that was my choice.
This was the first day of my career breakthrough – I had just been appointed to manage Toshiba’s European television manufacturing facility. The first task was to chair the morning operations meeting, and I was faced with a team of supervisors who in turn managed a shop floor of 350 skilled people. They were looking to me for direction, inspiration, wisdom even.
And I was 24 years old.
Previously to this I had been managing product development projects in the Satellite TV industry, liaising with pan-European development and commercial teams to introduce key products into a new market at that time. But this was different. I had the pressure of people sat around me depending on my judgement, words and experience – the last one being in short supply!
With a deep academic background in management, I knew the theories and understood the concepts. They don’t help you so much when you are faced with a decision that needs to be made within the next 20 seconds because a production line has stopped, and there are 50 people staring at you with nothing to do.
It was this experience that gave me my most important and impactful lesson in leadership. This learning would shape the whole of the rest of my career, and enable me to work at the very highest levels in some of the most prestigious and ambitious companies in the world. It has informed every job and project I have since led or been part of, and it has served me well. When I go off track, it is because I have forgotten my learning, and I need to find and apply it again.
And it is incredibly simple. Just ask more questions. That’s it.
Something magical happens between 2 people when a questions is asked.
Firstly, asking someone a question demonstrates a deep respect for their expertise and knowledge, and pays them a huge compliment. You are saying that you need and value what they have to offer. We all want to be needed and valued, and asking the question conveys this to others.
Secondly, being asked a question makes new connections in your brain and helps you to see the world differently. It helps form new perspectives. It helps both people learn. Applying your mind to someone else’s situation or challenge does not just help them – you learn from this experience too.
So I came to learn that questions are possibly the most powerful tool we have in the leadership and management toolkit, and I have spent the last 25 years of my career developing the capability of using questions to illuminate situations, create new insights and find new solutions to old problems.
Of course, there are a great many other skills that need to be learnt on the path from being a technical expert through to becoming an organisational leader, but that 24 year old learnt fast that the art of asking questions, and by so doing shaping peoples’ thinking in an empowering way, is an excellent first step along the road.
Sink or swim. It’s your choice.