Corporate Diary: Power of right questions

Questions are powerful because they create change. Giving out facts and information is helpful, but questions inspire innovation, create transformation and result in true change. A lot of fresh graduates, mid-level managers ask me how I climbed the corporate ladder so fast, and what can they do to succeed? While luck plays some role, there are a lot of competencies you can build that are surprisingly (or not) lacking in the herd. I had few of these competent skills before starting my job but certainly learnt the others the hard way. I started corporate diary series to provide some anecdotes in case anyone may benefit from them.

This dates to 2007 when IBM was looking to set up account for UBS Investment Bank which was completely dominated by its competitors. UBS was calling about 3-4 folks onsite at Chicago. The plan was to train them, provide details on the requirements of this big program and then one senior most person would stay back to work with client while others go back to Pune, hire rapidly and lead from there. I had just come back from a short stint at IBM Japan and was told that two senior folks are already selected, and they are looking for someone junior to accompany them for 6 months and then come back to Pune. After learning they have rejected nearly 100 candidates so far, I knew cracking the interview was going to be extremely tough. I prepared for few days, and I was able to go through. (How I prepare for interviews is a story for another time)

Even though opportunity was meant for only 6 months, I didn’t reject it. This was with the hope that I will get to learn and groom myself through this new experience which mattered the most to me throughout the career. In the knowledge industry, your skills and experiences pay you exponentially more. When I left my corporate job in 2022 to upstart, I was already at multi crore package. While I am not suggesting settling for less, especially when you are experienced, my advice to beginners is to focus on learnings and excellency even if that comes at moderate package in first few years. Just make sure you don’t stay in that boat for too long J.

I travelled nearly every weekend during those 6 months to cover major tourist spots in US in case I don’t get chance to come back. Towards the end, I was told by client manager that UBS is asking IBM for me to stay back while other senior members to return and lead from Pune. While this was a pleasant surprise for me, it was also a shock to many. Why would UBS want someone with 2 years of experience to lead from onsite while they had choices with 10-15+ years of experience?

Naturally, some of my colleagues who guided me were happy for me, but others thought I played politics. I had not. So, I asked my client manager about the decision in our next 1:1 meeting. He said, “Others listened to all client personnel carefully, took notes and showed that they have understood – maybe they did. What you did is – question. Why were a certain technology chosen? Why were certain decisions made during implementation? What is the business problem this is trying to solve? Some questions made us think deeper, explore information from other teams including business. This forced us to evaluate ecosystem better, facilitate brain storming which resulted in better proposals collectively.” The world around me stopped and his response made me think about the meetings we had in this duration. This meeting is etched in my mind, and I decided I will continue to hone this skill further.

Today, much of an executive’s workday is spent asking others for information—requesting status updates from a team leader, for example. Yet unlike other professionals such as litigators, journalists, and doctors, who are taught how to ask questions as an essential part of their training, only a few IT professionals think of questioning as a skill that can be honed. That’s a missed opportunity.

Obviously, questions come from genuine curiosity and to raise them without fear of judgement needs some nerve. Preparing ahead of the time helps. Most folks feel imposter syndrome and everyone – literally everyone – including executives learn a lot of things on the job, so it is important to stop censoring ourselves. People have conversations to accomplish some combination of two major goals: information exchange (learning) and impression management (liking). Recent research in HBR suggests that asking questions achieves both these goals 1.

This picture is me in front of Chicago Public Library. There are many quotes near the walkway to this library. This one seems apt. “The power to question is the basis of all progress – Indira Gandhi.”

PS: I ended up living in the USA for about 13 years.

Citations:

  1. How to Ask Great Questions Available at: https://hbr.org/2018/05/the-surprising-power-of-questions

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