Reasons not to play with dinosaurs

So, I read and responded to a post from a friend the other morning who wanted to know (on behalf of her young daughter): What was the first song ever downloaded/purchased on iTunes? I felt it was my duty to my friend to help, so I scoured the internet. The question, as it turned out, was a difficult one to answer but I found a reasonable answer that I hoped might help, so I sent it over to her. It got me thinking about a child’s love of questions.

I thought about the innocence of that question like all those that come from children, and how it would have been asked with the best intentions which was to simply find out the answer; no politics, no underlying agenda, just pure and simple, a question that needed an answer.

So why is it that as we grow up, we feel embarrassed to ask certain questions and challenge the norm in certain situations to certain people?

Now, as an adult, I still have a questioning mind, and am generally not afraid to ask anything really, probably because my mother allowed me to ask question after question (parents/teachers, you know the drill), and used to say to me, “If you don’t ask then you will never get or know”. She was right, and it was her parenting that built the confidence I have as an adult, to always question when I need to know an answer.

I have realized that my mother perhaps encouraged me too much as I have never been afraid to question authority and so, even as a 20-something year old who joined the world of “management”, I was comfortable sitting at a boardroom table and disagreeing with MDs, CEOs and the like. I remember being given advice by some experienced, older managers ahead of attending my first boardroom session with a “ferocious” MD. They said that the MD did not like people disagreeing, that I should take notes, and basically nod my head. Well, that was never going to be me, given that I had challenged teacher after teacher at school to allow me to simply learn more and therefore, satisfy my inquisitive mind. The outcome of my first boardroom adventure was positive, and that “ferocious” MD was one of the kindest, most decent human beings, and he mentored me for years long after I left the organization. When I think back to this period, these older, “experienced” managers that I had first aspired to be like, became less appealing.

Looking back, I wonder if I would feel the same as a 20-something year old now, because these managers were, to put it bluntly, “Dinosaurs”, and as I had learned very quickly from that MD, this was not the direction he wanted to go even as a 50-something year old executive, and that is why I had been thrust into his boardroom.

I am one of the fortunate ones, an anomaly, as I often call myself, for I have been blessed again two decades later with another 50-something year old CEO who, although closer in age to myself these days, does not allow for dinosaurs in the organization that he created. Our team’s ages range from 21 to late 50s but somehow, we are aligned in what we want to achieve, and are given a framework on how to go forward NOT a set of orders on what to do and not do. Pierre, for he deserves to have his name mentioned, embraces the ideas of a 20-year-old as much as he does someone twice that age, for he is smart enough to know that everyone should have their opinion heard and questions answered. He is as digitalized as any generation after him and encourages everyone to get up to speed not only for the good of the organization but for themselves and the work they can do for others.

So how do other organizations change the culture of questioning because that is really what it comes down to: Can you question the CEO about something that is not working within the company, particularly if you are one of the “Frozen Middle” or sit somewhere below, or are simply defined as younger? Can you stride into your line manager’s office, or anyone’s office for that matter, and question something that they implemented long before you joined the organization? If the answer is no, then a shift probably needs to happen, but how do you move from this state to a new engaged, being able to question everything state? Well, we cannot go back to being children, but we can take some of the lessons from children and remember that not all questions have an agenda and even if some of them do, answer them anyway. You might just teach someone something they did not previously know OR thought they knew, as was the case for me with that original group of dinosaurs who quickly saw the shift in their MD, and they grew a little because of it.

My point is that if we stifle questions both when we are young and old, it stops innovation, creativity, problem solving, engagement. By unleashing the power of questioning, your employees will trust you a little more. They will share their new knowledge with someone else who questions them in the future. They will want to continue questioning and evolve for you, for no one wants to become extinct, just like those real dinosaurs.

Bringing it back to that original question. If you do know the answer on the iTunes matter, I would love to be able to share it with a beautiful 7-year-old.

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