Wednesday Jan 18, 2012

The Lesson of the Cookie

My family went out for Chinese food the other night, and the end of the dinner brought fortune cookies (my kids’ favorite part). When I opened my fortune cookie, the fortune said:

It is never a shame to learn from others.

Wow! Given that my background is in learning, my job focuses on learning, and I’m an avid believer in lifetime learning, this was a great fortune to receive. It also made me wonder why someone might feel shame in learning.

Delving back into my past jobs, I thought about two vastly different managers. The first manager was one who came into our department knowing nothing about the work that was being done – he was brought in for “his managerial skills.” Instead of taking time to learn what worked and what didn’t, he proceeded to tell all of us how things were going to be done. I was asked to do some research, and when I gave this manager the research results, he became angry that I spent time doing the research. I know – it confused me also!

The second manager that I thought about was in a situation where multiple companies had been purchased in a short timeframe, and we needed to integrate those companies as quickly and as efficiently as possible. This manager, when asked about specific topics in meetings, would turn to a staff member and say “I hired you for your expertise in this area. What are your suggestions?” Let me repeat – in meetings that staff and executives attended, this manager would admit he didn’t know the answer and ask the “expert” for his or her opinion.

Both of these managers were considered leaders on the corporate org chart, but which one was considered a leader by the employees? (This is a rhetorical question, by the way).

As a consultant, I had plenty of customer questions that I couldn’t answer. Using some great advice from my mom, my response was always, “I don’t know, but I'll get an answer for you by tomorrow.” Before the next day, I was online trying to learn from my fellow consultant so I could have an answer for my client. Surprisingly, I had many clients who told me that I was the only consultant they ever hired who admitted they didn’t know an answer – and those clients were all impressed that I was willing to learn.

Sometimes as leaders (whether of teams or projects), we think that we have to have an answer for everything lest we be perceived as lacking knowledge. We can’t graciously accept “teaching” from people because we’re “the boss.” In reality, we make a better leader if we’re able to admit that we don’t have all the answers and learn from those people who might be smarter than we are. In the words of the cookie…it is never a shame to learn from others.

About

Sandy's ideas about learning, organizational & personal improvement and other stuff.

I work on Oracle's Leadership Development team, but all thoughts and opinions expressed here are solely my own!

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