Leading While Naked: Part 4—That’s a Dumb Question

In his blog series Leading While Naked, Paul Shultz, Slalom Consulting’s Dallas General Manager, reflects on leadership and the lessons found in Patrick Lencioni’s business fable Getting Naked and Charlene Li’s work Open Leadership. As Paul says: “Leading and managing a professional service firm in today’s connected times, with heartfelt attention to the absolute fact that people matter, proves to be a remarkable journey.”

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6

Slalom Consulting Dallas General Manager Paul Shultz

Paul Shultz, General Manager of Slalom Consulting’s Dallas office, has more than 30 years experience leading business and technology transformations.

“Check your ego at the door!”—he told me—if I wanted to have a real conversation with a potential client. My ego: a bulldozer in the push/pull conversation running inside my head about how I want to be credited with great feats, while at the same time not wanting to appear, or act, superior to others. When I have the answer, or so I think, I can barely hold myself back from revealing it, in all my “subject matter expert/Mr. Cool” glory. At the same time, that little voice on the other side of my brain is beseeching me to hold my desire for applause long enough to let a colleague or “client-to-be” discover and bring forth the nugget of wisdom.

Oh yeah, and in not so few cases, I realize that my answer—though magnificent and shiny—was not the only and perhaps not the best answer.

I have had the pleasure of several learning experiences with Mahan Khalsa dating way back in my consulting career. Many of you know of him and have either read his stellar work Let’s Get Real or Let’s Not Play: Transforming the Buyer/Seller Relationship or perhaps attended one of his sales training sessions at FranklinCovey.

Helping Clients Succeed Body of Work
Mahan said “check your ego at the door”. Right. Easy. Thanks for playing and please try again. Usually the best I can do is to tone-down that debate inside my head between my ego and my–well, whatever my ego isn’t. I can affirm this: whenever I do check my ego at the door and put others in first place, good things happen.

And that ego thing gets right to the heart of the matter and relates dead-on to conquering the fear of being embarrassed as Patrick Lencioni describes it in Getting Naked. “Ask the dumb questions and make dumb suggestions,” Lencioni tells us, as he takes us through those Lighthouse Consulting folks’ experiences doing the same. Not exactly what they teach in the B-schools, huh? Or what your boss would advocate as your #1 strategy to execute in front of the next gazillion dollar client prospect. Listen to yourself saying this as you enter the proposal discussion meeting with Ms. Big Shot prospect: “Hey boss! I want to ask dumb questions and make dumb suggestions even if they turn out to be laughably wrong.”

Ok don’t tell your boss that. Let’s try it with more subtlety, some artful conversation skills, and without announcing what we are doing…

I had listened about as long as I could listen to the rambling presentation our team was making. Process this, measurement that, benefit those. Somewhat boring and snoring to me—like we were selling, not consulting—but that is yet another story. My glances at our prospects confirmed my feelings. Seemed to me our logic was sound and that we were hitting the mark on what they were asking, but I wondered if even they were asking the right questions. There was just something missing and I’m pretty sure I had the answer. But I checked my ego and decided to pursue a different path.

It was coming up on my turn to discuss the team we would propose, the project schedule and our pricing. Pretty sure my team gave me those parts because I would be hard pressed to screw them up. After all, I really didn’t know much about the intricacies of selling medical equipment and devices or of this company’s history with implementing and using newer technologies in their sales teams. This project seemed like so much work to me. So, taking a deep breath and shifting in my chair, I said I wanted to clarify some of my thoughts before going on.

Question:
“Do your teams normally do this much work in so short a period of time?”

Reaction and Response:
About five seconds of silence while everyone looked at each other. Then some glaring eyeballs from my colleagues, a few “oh, sure we do” replies, slight smiles from a few IT leaders, mostly dismissal of the thought. I now assumed it was a really dumb question–but no one had given any real examples. My heart rate was definitely up. Stand pat, ego.

Question:
“Ok, maybe that was a bad question. We’re supposing a team here that works local and remotely. Both our people and yours. How will your non-sales people feel about that travel? “

Reaction and Response:
“No problem”, “We do what we have to do”, etc. I was about ready to move on to my next dumb question, when one of the IT team leaders quietly admitted he was slightly concerned about the travel. To clarify, he wondered aloud about the effect on his son’s struggles with his grades—and that he hadn’t quite worked it out yet. Silence. And then a finance person commented that summer was always a time where this company’s headquarters staff spent a lot of time together after work—and she didn’t know how this project would go over for some of them. More silence. Finally, the CEO acted a bit surprised and noted they had never raised those concerns. I moved along. But I knew this dumb question was not so dumb.

Question:
“Since you were discussing culture some, how will the social edgy-ness of this new system play in your company? I mean you guys tweet and all that, right?”

Reaction and Response:
Mixed laughter followed by “of course we do” and “doesn’t everybody?” Then a really eerie silence. I noticed the CEO a bit tight lipped with his head down. And so I pressed the point with a dumb suggestion (not unlike a dumb question): “Great. Me too. Your marketing team could start tweeting about this. Be good for the brand and your reputation.” At which the CEO raised his head and said curtly, “I don’t see the benefit of that.” Wow! An unexpected zinger. Not sure that comment would even put him in the Worried Skeptic archetype as Charlene Li portrays in Open Leadership. She notes about that particular archetype “ They look at Twitter and see nothing good coming out of it–because it’s people with too much time on their hands….” (Open Leadership, location 2762 in Kindle Reader). The conclusion (or was it a very untested assumption?)—that this socially edgy system, designed to take advantage of all the social media technology tools available, was a right fit for them—needed some vetting. After all, many of the benefits in the ROI were about the social edginess. I felt pretty good about myself. But I quickly checked my ego at the door and started thinking about how to re-craft this deal.

I could go on but you get the drift. I had asked a few simple questions about working hard, traveling, and the use of social media. Maybe those discussions had already occurred but I didn’t know. I missed on a few, here and there–after all they are “dumb questions”. But I discovered, just like Patrick Lencioni points out, “Naked service providers are the ones who ask the dumb questions that others in the room are afraid to ask out of fear they would embarrass themselves.” (Getting Naked, location 2506 in Kindle Reader.)

It’s a good combination—checking your ego at the door (it’s ok to feel embarrassed) and asking dumb questions/making dumb suggestions. Powerful and consultative. I like that.

Now some wisdom from the grey hair: play nicely with the other children. Asking dumb questions and making dumb suggestions has to come from a place of honor, not a place of manipulation or playing with people. It’s about discovery and a sense of appreciative inquiry, not about pushing other people’s buttons. And don’t penalize others when they ask what you consider to be dumb questions. After all, they are just like you. Human.

Stay naked.

About paulshultz
In my work life, I lead the Dallas metroplex practice for Slalom Consulting. I have consulted in a number of industries including consumer products, food & beverage, industrial and high tech manufacturing, entertainment, energy, real estate, aerospace, and financial services. I have helped clients in creating and deploying strategic plans; developing and deploying strategic information and systems plans; creating customer-focused shared service centers; and assessing, designing, and implementing new technology-powered business processes. When not working, I chase little white balls through merry fairways, savor a good red wine, and follow those Baylor Bears

7 Responses to Leading While Naked: Part 4—That’s a Dumb Question

  1. Twitter can be a very useful yet risky avenue to go down in terms of social media. I can see the point the CEO brought up, as it can sometimes be hard to see the good from the bad with such a medium. We have congressman dropping like flies because of the way they have mishandled their Twitter accounts. Further, it seems that hackers are having their way with an increasing number of Twitter accounts–most recently, a congressman from Ohio. This has to be weighed heavily over the benefit of being able to get your message out quickly and succinctly to the people that actually care about what you have to say. To Twitter or not to Twitter, that IS the question.

    • Tom Schafer says:

      Paul,

      Thanks for your insights/reminders.

      About half-way through my thirteen years with Procter & Gamble a plant manager told me, “Tom, when I was younger I thought I had to know all the right answers. But, as I matured, I realized it was more important for me to know and ask the right questions.” That was about fifteen years ago and I have remembered, and apply, his “lesson learned” about fifty times a year.

      I also find, as you share in your comments, that “how” one asks questions can, if done in a “were-in-this-together manner”, reinforce an atmosphere of collegiality among people in the room. Establishing such a dialogue relationship can lead to openness, innovation, joint-ownership of outcomes, and other ‘nifty” positives.

      Oh, when I moved here to Texas I heard a saying which helps me in two basic situations. The saying is one of Will Rogers, who said, “We’re ALL IGNORANT! …………We’re just ignorant about different things.” When I goof up, I think of Will’s words, remembering that I can’t think of everything. At other times, in line with your words above, when I think that I’m pretty knowledgeable on a subject, I recall Will Roger’s’ word and tell myself, “Be quiet and let’s see what comes out of the minds of the others assembled here.” I normally learn a heap of really interesting, insightful ideas.

      Thanks, Will. Thanks, Paul.

      Tom Schafer, Southlake, Texas

  2. Pingback: Leading While Naked Part 1: “I Like the People and I Believe in the Mission” « The Slalom Blog

  3. Pingback: Leading While Naked Part 2: Happy Thanksgiving–Or How Lincoln Led from the Heart « The Slalom Blog

  4. Pingback: Leading While Naked Part 3: Enter the Danger « The Slalom Blog

  5. Pingback: Leading While Naked Part 5: Can You Smell Courage? « The Slalom Blog

  6. Pingback: Leading While Naked: Part 6—Oh. THAT Conversation! « The Slalom Blog

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