In this series, professionals share the words of wisdom that made all the difference in their lives. Follow the stories here and write your own (please include the hashtag #BestAdvice in the body of your post).
The lessons I’ve learned over my 40-plus-year career have come from a wide range of sources. I’ve turned to business leaders, publications and news items, and lately I’ve expanded my horizon and am reading blogs, tweets and other social media vehicles. But, as valuable as all of these resources are to me, my single biggest source of knowledge comes from my daily interactions with the people around me.
And I learn something new all the time. I am constantly amazed at how much I gain from people of all walks of life and all disciplines. I may not be the smartest guy in the room, but by asking questions and connecting the dots, I am better informed – and my leadership capabilities are greatly enhanced.
This idea – never stop listening and learning — isn’t novel. In fact, as I was developing this column, I came across a quote that sums it up perfectly from Bill Nye the Science Guy: “Everyone you will ever meet knows something you don’t.”
I first picked up this piece of wisdom back in the 1980s from observing Jack Welch, my former boss and then-CEO of General Electric. Winner of a wide range of accolades including Fortune’s “CEO of the Century,” Jack was (and still is) a demanding and driven leader. He was also a perpetual learner. Few people worked a room better than Jack, and he was a master of remembering names and important details. A man of a million questions, he went deep on both a business and personal level, whether he was talking to an early career employee or a seasoned executive.
In that spirit, I’ve made it a practice to try and learn something from everyone I meet, and to seek advice whenever I can. I’ve found people are generally pleased to have been asked, and quite willing to provide guidance. Here are some ways to make all this happen:
Listen much more than you talk. This may seem counter-intuitive (how can you ask questions and seek out new answers if you don’t keep asking questions?), but it’s not. Ask what you’d like to know, and then be quiet. It’s easy to have a rapid-fire list of questions, but people tend to talk less when they know you aren’t really listening, but instead are lining up the next question.
I love the quote, “The biggest communication problem is we do not listen to understand, we listen to reply.”
Don’t be too selective. Don’t seek out people who are just like you, even though that’s your natural inclination. The wider the range of people you engage, the more you’ll learn and grow.
If you want the real story, ask the people who actually do the work. I realize I’m characterized by most employees as a “corporate suit,” so I’m certainly not looking in any way to denigrate our leadership teams. That said, one of the best ways to learn a company’s challenges and get a feel for the culture is to talk with the employees who deal with customers every day. As wise business author Gary Heil told me, “The front line never lies.”
Remember what you learned. Seeking advice is of little value if you don’t make use of it – and you can’t do that unless you remember it. If you’re one of those people who is not gifted with a “steel trap” type of memory, find a way to quickly and easily create some record of the ideas and advice you garner. Thankfully, smart phones are great for this. Whether you record a message to yourself, write yourself a note or send yourself an e-mail, capture what you’ve learned.
What were the words of wisdom that made all the difference in my life and career? Simple: Keep listening. Keep learning. And remember.
Whether you heed this advice from me, Jack Welch, or even the Science Guy, your business will thank you for it.