Questions, Answers, Lessons
Life is questions. It taunts us with this immutable answer, the one true constant in life.
What I remember well from my childhood is walking our small town looking for odd jobs. My favorite character was little Sander Questad.
Weekends I would seek him out at the town café and greet him,
Need any help?
Fastidiously appointed as though every day was church, with a pointed silver goatee and a cheerful smile, Sander always had chores for me, so he was a regular appointment. That’s how I came to tend the cemeteries in our parish.
Be sure to trim around the headstones!
It wasn’t even his job to manage. He was just a volunteer. I now see he had a knack for setting the clear expectation. God rest your soul Sander.
A few miles from town a bachelor farmer named Chuck managed a big operation, with corn and soybeans covering much of his section. He raised hogs and cattle, chickens too. A few of us boys would ride our bikes out to his spread in June and volunteer,
Need any help?
His gaze was a combination of glare and twinkle. He looked us over, his eyebrows arched high, weighing the pros and cons of us, compared to the pesty weeds, and answered,
Need a small crew to walk the beans. Don’t bother though unless you get them by the roots.
He had been waiting for our help, and was resigned to accept our offer. The coda on our contract, his directive to get the roots and not settle on anything less, imprinted on us till the end of the project, weeks later. Day after day, everyday we walked up and down row after row, every row, of 100’s of acres of soybeans and we pulled every pesty weed pest we discovered, of course by the roots. That is a lot of walking, and a lot of weeds, but the fields were clean as a whistle when we finished. This was real farming, before RoundUp and Monsanto.
This same question worked for my first indoor job, in a kitchen. Florence Holton, the original owner of Menard’s Restaurant, had a similar reaction when I asked her,
Need any help?
She looked up from her paperwork to look me directly in the eye, delivering her response,
You are only good to me if you are here. Will you be on time and reliable? We are counting on you. Do you understand me?
Dishwashers come and go. A lot of them in my experience would not meet either of Mrs. Holton’s expectations. I stayed for a whole year, my senior year. She wrote me a nice letter of recommendation when I left for Arizona.
Armed with these experiences my job solicitation stayed the same when I moved to Arizona. At Diamond’s Gazebo restaurant, just moments after my roommate introduced me to the manager, my familiar question,
Need any help?
Sam Hess replied, without hesitation,
So Tiger, can you be flexible with your hours?
Thus began two more years in the restaurant business, with progressively increasing responsibility as we say, from pots and dishes to the fountain, then salads and sandwiches, right on up to the catbird seat in the kitchen, the fry cook. I saw my first powder blue Mercedes SL450 convertible on this job, in a pretty swank restaurant for the time. Worked with my first crew that was majority minority, all led by a crusty old marine who chewed and spit in the kitchen. Sam’s wife was held hostage for an afternoon by the Symbionese Liberation Army; it’s true in the same mall as the restaurant. Bobby Chacon worked with me and went on to be a pretty good local boxer. To Sam we were his Tigers.
Before I even came south, there was some initial misdirection when I announced I was going to school in Kansas City. My Father hesitated when he heard this, looked my way,
If you are going away, where do you want to go?
Father had turned down a band scholarship to attend ASU, back when it was Arizona Teacher’s College. I think he regretted this missed turn in his life, in the fantastic way we do.
You mean, where have I always wanted to go?
I had dreamed of going to Australia, probably the fault is on National Geographic, so I compromised my reply to Dad,
Well Arizona might be nice?
I remember rationalizing that Arizona was on the way to Australia.
Open-ended questions opened doors in my life. I was fortunate, lucky really to get chances with good people who trusted me and set clear expectations.
A few years later I met a closed-ended question I liked too. A headhunter, Sid Wugalter, took me under his wing and let me observe him interview a candidate for a drafting job at a local tech firm. He gave me a chance for a follow-up question in the interview and I asked the candidate,
Can you do you do ink?
The open-ended questions had all been asked. The candidate was well experienced and seemed perfect for the job we were recruiting for. But the essential qualification combining skill and confidence, was whether the candidate could perform the job without a net, in other words without an eraser.
I don’t remember the candidate’s reply, but Sid hired me on the spot. And I never thanked him enough. So let me do it here. Sid, you took a chance and I am forever grateful!
From recruiting I moved to labor relations, interviewing with a manufacturing company that was struggling mightily to keep its people from leaving. I asked the obvious,
Why are your people leaving?
The VP of Industrial Relations, spent the rest of the interview telling me that no, he was not sure why people kept quitting. I got the job. The turnover problem was solved. Open-ended questions come with a variety of answers. Be curious.
From labor relations to union avoidance, I took a job opening the Apache Attack Helicopter company in Arizona. At the time it was owned by Summa Corporation, a holding company for Howard Hughes’ varied interests. The Summa people did not want the Machinist unions to follow the company from California to Arizona. They did not want to be unionized and my job was to make it so. I wrote the sections of the employee handbook declaring our preference, and the benefits to employees, of a direct dealings environment where employees could take their concerns directly to their supervisor rather than being forced to deal with the unions.
Early on in the company’s founding, Jack Real, the head of Summa, arranged a dog and pony show to showoff his nascent factory. Political leaders, community leaders, academic leaders all accompanied him on an extended tour of the operation, even making it to my perch. Mr. Real saw the employee handbook sitting on my desk out in the open and marched right over to me. I had never laid eyes on the man before he addressed me,
Who wrote this and why?
Clearly the unions were on his mind. The whole thing was staged. The sneer in the tail of his question was a performance for his politician friends who had traveled with him all the way from Washington DC. The same ones approving funding for the Apache program were miffed that the money they were counting on from the unions might be in jeopardy.
My answer, honest to god, really a reflex, not always something I can depend on,
I did sir. It’s an important issue that is best addressed up front. Wouldn’t you agree?
Mr. Real glared at my response. His gaze was direct and intense beneath a mop of gray hair that I still admire, perched perfectly atop his eagle countenance. He sputtered something about our people being important and how much we needed them before leading the tour away to the next stop.
I wrote a few employee handbooks early in my career. I am pretty sure this is the only one that was read by the chairman of the board! Of course, I endured all kinds of wisecracks the next day, about the probability of my continued employment. I think my managers, frozen in stone the day before, were a little intimidated. The faint wisp of urine taints this memory. The Machinist unions never got in. I know that.
A short time later I remember being grilled again during the annual budget review. I was summoned impromptu from my cubicle to respond to the General Manager’s demand,
Why the hell does human resources need a computer?
I had been warned, but still it took me off guard to have to defend a $1000 purchase in front of this assembly of bosses.
Well, we want to go from 100 people to 5000 people over the next 5 years right? We want to know how much this will cost right? We want to be able to model different scenarios right?
PK, the same General Manager who left me deserted on an island during Mr. Real’s visit, cut me off somewhere in there and proposed I return to his office later. I received only a few apologies from bosses over the years. Never needed too many. Still, his is memorable because it came with a thank you. He assigned me to get a planning model draft to him right away.
A computer arrived in my cube the next day. Our first computer in HR was a nice IBM XT with 10M of hard drive, and it was on my desk. I thought that would do just fine for the next 10 years or so. Laugh out loud.
From Hughes Helicopters, Motorola came calling. The interview went well. In my final round I found myself talking to the boss. He asked if I had any other questions and I did. Just one more,
Your company is obviously very successful and admired by all. Are there one or two secrets you credit for this accomplishment?
Open-ended flattery will get you a job. I worked there in different capacities for almost 20 years.
Soon after, I was asking for a computer at this job too. It was the first here also and it went about the same. I wasn’t summoned to the executive conference room this time. Instead, the ransom for a computer here was a 5-page report, and endless signatures, detailing why we needed a computer in HR. Shake my damn head.
But other questions followed. As the internet was getting started, the question from a VP was,
Can we share a single internet connection between all of us? Or should I get a second one as a back-up?
Still makes me break into a belly laugh as I remember digesting the depth of innocent ignorance required to articulate a closed-ended question about the tidal wave of information that was the new world-wide-web. And I responded in a way I thought he might be able to understand. John, I said,
It is called the world-wide-web. It is not called the worldwide thread.
He was clever enough and he got the word play. In fairness, the box he was in was not of his making. It was the creation of some myopic financial analysis, scared witless no doubt about how expensive this internet thing seemed. Very likely it was the same crew demanding term papers to justify the purchase of a single computer. By the end of the year the sprawling campus was crawling with wire-pullers hooking the entire campus up to the web. System Administrator was birthed as a critical skill of the 90’s.
Years later I learned how the open ended question can be such a powerful deal closer from some of the best of the best, or at least high on the org charts. I tried to leave an organization. Thought I had a better deal. More than once. The house is on the market, the family is looking at schools, and the wife is looking at houses and I find myself on the telephone with the big cahunae. Seriously. He/she is calling from my almost previous employer with the simple question,
What are we going to tell your family about why you are staying?
Heady stuff, right? Open-ended. Family centered. Jedi-mind trickery. Flattering as all hell. Seductive. It works. He/she closed the deals with me. Or on me. My big chances. Only later you discover, they are not the deals you promised yourself, just dust in a sour wind like what blows off a dump after a rain. Promises are liquids that evaporate at different rates for givers and receivers.
Be careful out there. We are vulnerable because we are seeking. Job negotiations exploit that against us. Or perhaps some of us are just less well designed to resist. Probably a little of both, don’t you think?
Wishing it were the only time would be akin to amnesia, especially since the memory of the next time is near. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. The truly important questions are the implicit questions, those that live in the heart of a relationship. After all, you do not ask in an interview, on either side of the table,
Can I trust you?
Do you care about me?
Yet these are the only questions that matter. You can master the art of the open-ended question to understand every aspect of a person’s skill and knowledge. You can test the candidate’s initiative and motivation. You can observe their affect. You can even set expectations. You can appeal to the candidate’s imagination. You can get in their head. You can even close a deal. There is everything to recommend in favor of the good open-ended question. Nothing wrong with the closed-ended questions either, though they are probably best as subordinates in the interview tree.
Even so, the two closed ended questions that really matter, can I trust you? and do you care about me? have no answer until they are stressed. In my experience, you are going to misjudge people no matter how skilled a questioner you are. You are going to make some hiring mistakes. Brace yourself. You will make hiring mistakes.
Looking back and looking up, I am fortunate to have had so many bosses whom I can admire. They represent the best that leadership has to offer. Integrity, honesty, vision, hard work, empathy and compassion and so much more. Some were simply brilliant! Picture the thought cloud in my mind exploding with thanks for the leaders I had the privilege to work for. I am very fortunate.
There were others too and there always will be, so take care to choose well. The mistakes that will surprise you, certainly disappoint you, are those when you discover a boss or authority you cannot trust. A notion that is impossible to believe possible, then occurs and is irrevocable, is painful. So painful. Regret compounds the reality.
The other mistake, is invisible and unknowable if more profound. So many people you should have hired but somehow missed. The people you do not select, the ones for whom you will never know their gift, how you might have worked together, what you might have achieved together. Which just reminds us to take our time and choose well. And model the trust and compassion we hope for in others. Be a good person. Be a good boss. Be a boss you can trust. It is still possible to win, trust me.