A rosewood paperweight on my desk bears a sterling silver plaque declaring: Great results begin with great questions. It was a gift from a very special person in my life — Joseph S. Edwards — who introduced me to Question Thinking, or QT, as he called the skills he taught me. QT opened up a part of my mind that otherwise I might never have discovered. Like everyone else, I believed the way to fix a problem was to look for the right answers. Instead, Joseph showed me that the best way to solve a problem is to first come up with better questions. The skills he taught me rescued my career and saved my marriage as well. Both were definitely in trouble at the time.
It all started when I was invited to take a position at QTec. The company was in the midst of a major overhaul at the time, and the word on the street was that, barring a miracle, they would fold before the year was out. A friend warned me that accepting a position with QTec would be like signing up on a sinking ship. What convinced me to take the risk? It was my trust in Alexa Harte, the recently appointed CEO at QTec, who’d offered me the position. I’d worked with her for years at KB Corp, my previous employer, where she’d won my respect as a gifted leader. Her confidence about turning QTec around was infectious. Besides, she promised me a great promotion: hefty pay raise, impressive title, and a chance to act as lead in developing an innovative new product. If everything went well the risk would pay off in aces. If not … well, I tried not to think about that.
At first I was riding high, convinced I had the job wired. Alexa had hired me for my engineering smarts and I knew I could deliver on that count. The new product really intrigued me and the technical challenges were right up my alley. At KB — where Alexa said she’d seen me work miracles — I’d won accolades as the Answer Guy. I’d faced down the toughest technical problems, one right after the other. However, at QTec I was also facing a different kind of challenge — leading a team. I was sure that would be simple even though Alexa let me know I’d have to put effort into developing my people and management skills.
My team seemed an enthusiastic and talented bunch and for a while everything went great. Then life at work started unraveling. It was as if suddenly a glaring spotlight was focused on my shortcomings. I didn’t dare say it, but secretly I decided I’d been stuck with a bunch of losers.
To make matters worse, there was Charles. Before I came aboard at QTec he’d been passed over for the job I’d been offered. I could understand why he might resent me. And, just as I expected, he was a real troublemaker from the word go, questioning everything I said and did.
Things went from bad to worse. Our ship was sinking and I couldn’t figure out how to plug up the leaks. Team meetings were a farce — no discussions, no solutions. And nobody had to remind me that if we couldn’t get our product to market before the competition, we would prove the naysayers right.
Life wasn’t much better at home. Tension was growing with Grace, my wonderful wife of less than eight months. She constantly asked me about what was going on at work. Finally, one day I just told her she was asking too many questions and she should keep her nose out of my business. She was hurt, I was miserable, and I hadn’t the vaguest idea what to do about it.
I didn’t want Grace to know how much difficulty I was having. I’d always taken great pride in solving problems that baffled everyone else. This time, with any luck, the right answers would turn up before Grace, Alexa, and the people on my team found out the job was way over my head. Meanwhile I kept more and more to myself and did my best to just get through each day.
I was mystified and overwhelmed. It seemed like everything in my life was falling apart. Then came the awful turning point. Grace and I had an argument in the morning and only hours later there was a major crisis at work. Nobody said it, but I could see it in their eyes: We were cooked. It was my moment of truth.
I needed to be alone and face facts. I called Grace and left a message that I’d be putting in an all-nighter to finish an important report. Then I spent the whole long night in my office, staring at the walls, still searching desperately for the right answers, and reliving the most disastrous weeks of my life. I told myself I had to face the truth; I had failed. Just after six that morning I went out for coffee and then started drafting my resignation. I finished three hours later, called Alexa, and made arrangements to see her immediately.
The walk to Alexa’s suite was less than a hundred yards. That morning it felt like a hundred miles. When I got to the big double doors of her office I stopped and took a deep breath to regain my composure. I stood there for some long moments, working up the nerve to knock. Just as I was raising my arm, I heard a voice behind me.
“Ben Knight, you’re here. Good, good!”
It was Alexa. There was no mistaking that voice, always cheerful, exuding a sense of optimism even when things were going badly. An attractive, athletic-looking woman in her early fifties, she radiated confidence. I told Grace that I’d never met anyone quite like Alexa. She approached her responsibilities at QTec with boundless enthusiasm. It wasn’t that she didn’t take her job seriously. She did that in spades! But she did it with such pleasure and self-assurance that she made it look easy.
At that moment, her mere presence made me acutely aware of my own deficiencies. I felt numb, barely mumbling a subdued good morning as she touched my shoulder and ushered me into her office.
The room was expansive, the size of a large living room in the best executive home. I crossed deep green carpeting, soft underfoot, and walked over to the large bay window where the meeting area was set up. There, two overstuffed sofas faced one another across a large walnut coffee table.
“Sit!” Alexa said, gesturing in a welcoming way to one of the couches. “Betty said your lights were on when she left her office at seven-thirty last night, and you were here when she came in early this morning.”
She sat down across from me on the other couch.
“I presume that’s for me?” Alexa asked, pointing to the green folder containing my resignation that I’d placed on the coffee table.
I nodded, waiting for her to pick it up. Instead, she leaned back, looking as if she had all the time in the world.
“Tell me what’s going on with you,” she said.
The next sound I heard stopped me cold. It was not a gasp, not a word of reproach, but laughter! It was not cruel laughter, either. What had I missed? I didn’t understand. How could Alexa still sound sympathetic in the face of all I’d screwed up?
“Ben,” she said, “you’re not going to quit on me.” She slid the folder in my direction. “Take this back. I know more about your situation than you realize. I want you to give me at least six more weeks. But for that period of time, you’ve got to commit to making changes.”
“Are you sure about this?” I asked, dumbfounded.
“Let me answer you this way,” she continued. “Many years ago, I was in a situation similar to yours. I had to face facts. If I wanted to be successful I’d need to make some fundamental changes. I was pretty desperate. A man by the name of Joseph sat me down and asked some straightforward questions, simple ones on the surface. But those questions opened doors I never even knew existed. He asked, ‘Are you willing to take responsibility for your mistakes — and for the attitudes and actions that led to them?’ Then he said, ‘Are you willing — however begrudgingly — to forgive yourself, and even laugh at yourself?’ And finally, ‘Will you look for value in your experiences, especially the most difficult ones?’ Bottom line, ‘Are you willing to learn from what happened and make changes accordingly?’”
She went on to tell me how Joseph’s work changed not only her life but her husband Stan’s as well. “Stan has tripled his income in the past few years. He attributes the success he and his company enjoy today to what Joseph taught him. Joseph would tell you all about it. He loves to tell stories, especially ones about how people’s lives were changed by changing their questions.”
I must have looked perplexed because she added, “Don’t worry about what I mean by questions that change people’s lives. You’ll learn about that soon enough.” She paused. Then, in carefully measured words, she said, “I want you to work with my friend Joseph, starting immediately. I’m sure he’ll want to meet with you a number of times. Figure out the schedule with him. This is top priority now.”
“What is he, a therapist?” The idea of seeing a shrink made me nervous.
Alexa smiled. “No, he’s an executive coach. I call him an inquiring coach.”
Inquiring coach! If I knew anything at all, it was that I needed answers, not more questions. What good could more questions possibly be to me?
As I left, Alexa jotted something down and sealed it in an envelope. “Inside this envelope is a prediction I’ve made,” she said mysteriously, handing it to me. “Put it in that green folder of yours and don’t open it until you’ve completed your work with Joseph.” Then she gave me his business card. I turned it over. There was a big question mark on the other side. It really irritated me. The idea that I’d be spending valuable time with a man whose logo was a question mark went against everything I believed.
Back in my own office, I collapsed in the chair behind my desk. My eyes fell on a small gilded frame on the wall. It held a saying, just two words long: Question everything! It was a quote attributed to Albert Einstein. Many rooms at QTec contained a framed placard exactly like this one. As much as I respected and appreciated Alexa’s leadership, this had always been a point of contention for me. Leaders should have answers, not questions.
I was still holding Joseph’s card with the question mark on the back. What had I gotten myself into? Only time would tell. At least I could put off my decision to resign. My attention shifted to Grace. How was I ever going to smooth things over with her? At that moment there was only one thing to be grateful for — Alexa hadn’t asked about Grace and me. I think that would have been the last straw. I knew Alexa was fond of my wife — she’d even come to our wedding. She wouldn’t have been happy to find out we were having trouble.
I sat there for a long time just staring at Joseph’s card. The fact that Alexa had refused to accept my resignation offered a little hope. I was encouraged that she would refer me to her own mentor. Even though the jury was still out on whether her trust in me was deserved, I had nothing to lose by keeping an appointment with this inquiring coach guy. Besides, even though I was skeptical, I was also curious. If this Joseph had helped Alexa and Stan so much, maybe he had answers that would help me too.
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