Archive for May, 2010

The Power of Inquisitiveness

May 25, 2010

Throughout my childhood and teenage years, I remember my father passing down a variety of tips.  Several stood out, such as “When driving, don’t just look at the bumper of the car in front of you.  Look through their windshield so you can see what’s happening up ahead.”  Or when my older cousin wouldn’t stop teasing me, my father took me aside and said, “Just ask him about his grades.  That’ll shut him up.”

Yet, one of the most valuable tips I learned from my father was one he never told me.  Instead, it became ingrained in me through years of repetitive observation.  Finally, at age 16, when my father took me to a seminar on applying to the University of California school system, it dawned on me.  Amongst hundreds of people in the audience, my dad stood up several times, asking the most important, well thought out, and highly articulate questions.  It was at that moment in my life that I recognized the power of asking good questions.

Time after time, situation after situation, he came up with the most thought provoking questions.  How did he do it?  It starts with interest, or more specifically, curiosity.  It stands to reason that if we find something to be genuinely intriguing, we gravitate towards it, like a magnet.  A natural inclination to appreciate things occurs when we truly desire to understand them.

One of my father’s lifetime mottos was “Knowledge is Power.”  He had an insatiable thirst for knowledge, as evidenced by his extensive library and even more extensive determination to ask provocative questions.  To him, life was one ongoing book, each page a welcome mat to new insights and pieces to the puzzle.  Interest, curiosity, desire, thirst, determination – all of these traits signify passion.

True inquisitiveness, generated by passion, can be a powerful force.  It guides sales professionals through the labyrinth of complex sales cycles.  It enables executives to make key decisions with confidence.  And in the interview, it allows both parties to ascertain the extent of a fit.

Inquisitiveness carries several side benefits as well.  Asking thoughtful questions is a highly effective way to convey that you care.  It proves that you’re engaged and want to learn what the other person knows.  Subliminally, asking meaningful questions demonstrates respect for the person to whom you’re asking.  The other side benefit to asking questions is you get the other person talking more than you.  Of course, that increases the likelihood of you learning.  In the past, I have counseled sales folks that if they find themselves talking more than their customers, they’re not learning enough.

It’s all well and good to ask questions based on interest and desire.  Equally important is the ability and tact to ask effective questions.  For interviewers, surely you can muster up more questions than the standard, “What are your strengths?  What are your weaknesses?  Where do you want to be five years from now?”  One of my favorite questions is the “anti-reference” question.  Interested?  Ask me about it.

An interview should not go by without some specific situational questions.  An example could be, “Tell me about a specific sales opportunity when you had what appeared to be an insurmountable impasse with the customer.”  If the candidate answers with generalities, such as “In such circumstances, I would typically…,” stop them in their tracks and given them one more shot at giving you a specific situation/task, action, and result (STAR) – the customer, the nature of the deal, who was involved, what happened, what did they do, and what became of it.

There are many eye-opening interview questions to ask.  Yet, some of the best won’t be found on your favorite website lists of interview questions.  These are the questions you ask based on the answers given to prior questions.  They can be as simple as “Why?” or “Really?”  Generally, the more extemporaneous the question, the more genuine its nature.  These questions have a way of cutting through the facade and getting to the meat of the matter.

In a similar vein, candidates shine when they ask questions as effectively as the answers they’ve given.  As a hiring executive, I took just as much stock in the questions candidates asked me.  Invariably, their questions provided a valuable glimpse into their thought process, priorities, and interest level.  There are so many thoughtful questions to ask an interviewer, such as the company’s challenges, the competitive landscape, the financials, the culture, a recent news event that involved the company, the challenges of the role, why they (the interviewer) joined the company, etc.

Ultimately, my father was right.  Knowledge is power.  It’s the key to possibilities, understanding, and making things happen.  Of course, there are no short cuts.  It all starts with that first thoughtful question.  And remember, the real stupid questions are the ones that go unasked.

Action items:

1.  Asking effective questions takes repetition.  In every situation, think of questions to ask.  Even if you don’t ask them out loud, formulating questions on the fly is like exercising a muscle.

2.  Remember that inquisitiveness is not a tangible trait, but can be cultivated.  It is derived from interest, care, desire, and determination.

3.  As Father’s Day approaches, we owe it to our dads to remember the many tips we picked up from them that have enriched our lives.

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