Steve Baker | Crain's

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Steve Baker

Background:  

Rancho Cordova, California-based Eyefinity specializes in practice management and electronic health records software for the optometry industry. A subsidiary of VSP Global, Eyefinity offers intuitive solutions that integrate technology and services to enhance patient care and streamline business management.

The Mistake:

I was a product of the 1970s and 1980s, having graduated college in 1982 with a degree in computer science. For me as a software developer, I enjoyed long hours working on complex problems in darkened computer labs with my fellow nerds.

While working for a defense company, I was afforded the opportunity to do a series of customer demonstrations of our product. This was my first direct customer engagement, so I was pretty excited as I went on tour for a week visiting customers across the country. In each demonstration, I wowed them with my vast intellect and I talked, talked, talked through the entire demonstration. I barely paused to take a breath, using the entire time for me. It was all about me!

I came back from the customer visits thinking I just conquered a nation. I walked into the office acting like a hero that single-handedly advanced our company and saved all of mankind in the process. But I was utterly deflated to learn that my presentations were not received well. And that would be an understatement!

I confused customers with my words, and didn’t leave them room to better understand what I was demonstrating.

The feedback included comments like “arrogant,” “condescending” and “out of touch.” That was hard to hear at the time, but in retrospect it was a critical, lifelong learning moment which changed me forever.

I enjoyed long hours working on complex problems in darkened computer labs with my fellow nerds.

The Lesson:

In that moment, I learned the power of asking open-ended questions. In fact, a dear mentor later in my career once said that a true sign of intelligence is your question-to-statement ratio. How powerful is that?

Learning the art of open-ended questions is a multifaceted skill. You can engage with others in the room, you can check their understanding, you can show humbleness and humility, and you can invite others to participate. In fact, skillful managers will use open-ended questions to add a certain energy and vibrancy to an objective. Think about your own experiences. Do you feel more fulfilled when you are told what to do or when you are asked for your thoughts?

Throughout my career I put specific focus on asking open-ended questions. In fact, today I still prepare for a meeting or customer engagement by shaping interesting, provocative questions that are designed to spur deeper thinking and collaboration across the room. I’ve used this skill on the home front as well. Believe me, raising three daughters requires asking skillful questions!

Of course, I’ll end this by asking: “What question would you like to most ask of your team right now?” Jot it down and ask away!

Eyefinity is on Twitter at @Eyefinity.

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