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April 5, 2006 / Toby Dayton

Be Interested

A few months ago, at the request of a colleague who teaches an MBA finance class, I gave a presentation to a group of students on start-ups and early-stage private equity fundraising. After my 20-minute presentation, not a single student asked a question. I didn’t even get any dumb questions. While I certainly recognize the possibility that I might have been a terribly boring presenter and simply put the class to sleep, I am reasonably certain I was at least moderately engaging. And the topic was entirely relevant to the class and what they had been studying for 3 months.

Furthermore, our business enjoys a phenomenal growth rate, our products and services are easy to understand, and we have raised multiple rounds of private equity capital over the years. We also compete against some of the most well known media, publishing, and internet companies in the world. It’s a pretty rich set of factors that should have triggered at least a hint of curiosity in at least one student. Yet not a single person in the class could come up with a question to ask.

It occurred to me driving home later that night that among the most appealing traits in a person is the extent to which they are curious. And while this is true for anyone in almost any setting, it is especially true in business. It is even more true for people looking for a job. In talking to anyone about business, and it could be about almost any aspect of their business, dozens of questions should pop into your head. How do you do that? Why? What do you do in this area? How does that work? How do you react to this situation or compete against those companies? In a less formal setting, other questions could be asked such as how did you get into the business? How do you like doing what you do? What have been some of the bigger challenges you have faced? And the list goes on and on. The number of questions is almost infinite if you think about something for more than a minute. So ask good questions. Even if you have to fake it, ask a reasonably substantive question of someone and you will be amazed at what you learn, the insights you will gain, the fascinating stories people will tell, and the reward obtained through a good conversation.

In paging through Business 2.0 a few nights after the presentation, I came across this advice from Jim Collins, author of Good To Great:

“I learned this golden rule from the great civic leader John Gardner, who changed my life in 30 seconds. Gardner, founder of Common Cause, Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare in the Johnson administration, and author of such classic books as Self-Renewal, spent the last few years of his life as a professor and mentor-at-large at Stanford University. One day early in my faculty teaching career — I think it was 1988 or 1989 — Gardner sat me down. “It occurs to me, Jim, that you spend too much time trying to be interesting,” he said. “Why don’t you invest more time being interested?”
If you want to have an interesting dinner conversation, be interested. If you want to have interesting things to write, be interested. If you want to meet interesting people, be interested in the people you meet — their lives, their history, their story. Where are they from? How did they get here? What have they learned? By practicing the art of being interested, the majority of people can become fascinating teachers; nearly everyone has an interesting story to tell.
I can’t say that I live this rule perfectly. When tired, I find that I spend more time trying to be interesting than exercising the discipline of asking genuine questions. But whenever I remember Gardner’s golden rule — whenever I come at any situation with an interested and curious mind — life becomes much more interesting for everyone at the table.”

It’s very hard to do at times, and there are times when I am horrible at it, but stop talking for a bit and ask a good question. You will be amazed at what happens.

[tags]Be Interested, Be Interesting, Jim Collins, Good To Great, Business 2.0, Ask Questions[/tags]