Out of the mouths of babes. It’s an expression used when someone young or inexperienced says something surprising for its wisdom. Wisdom like this, the idiom implies, is usually the stuff of those who’ve been around a long time, weathered the storms, climbed the hills and hierarchies. “Leader” is the word we often use to describe them. Age and seniority can be helpful, yet these have far less to do with actual wisdom and impact than two more potent and often overlooked factors: exposure and asking questions.
Very few senior leaders have figured out how to acquire and enable a team of employees to do their jobs well, learn ongoing, thrive and want to stick around. Some sobering statistics from the online job site Zippia bear this out. It takes 39 days to fill the average job. Companies dedicate 15% of human resources funds and 40% of a new employee’s starting salary to new hires. On average, three to eight months are required for a new hire to become fully productive at work. And that’s just the beginning of the challenge. A 2022 CBS News study reported that just 23% of workers said they were truly engaged. A whopping 77% were busy doing the bare minimum, quiet quitting or readying to quit outright. It feels like leaders need some wisdom or at least need to ask some new questions. Here are a few.
Encouraging the development of wisdom
What if leaders stopped chasing this cycle? What if, instead of repeating these costly steps over and over, leaders did less, spent less and even turned over the job of advancement and retention largely to their employees? Farfetched? Maybe not. A hopeful example suggests it may come down to two things leaders don’t have to pay for or do but instead simply encourage and allow: exposure and asking questions.
On a recent visit to see our college student daughter, I talked at length with one of her classmates. Meeting her for the first time, I asked basic questions: “What are you studying?” “What do you think you want to do after college?” Just a few years out of high school, this young woman answered that she was studying nursing and wanted to start her career in a critical care unit. At on one level, her answers were straightforward. Yet, what caught my attention was how precise and refined her goals were and how committed she was to them.
It was clear she hadn’t just dreamed up nursing or critical care. She’d grown up around people in health care, yet none, she explained, had been frontline patient-interfacing as she planned to be. And it wasn’t just health care professionals either; she’d grown up around artists and teachers, too. Her possible path, in other words, had examples but wasn’t preordained.
Eventually, she felt drawn to health care, so she trained as an emergency medical technician in her mid-teens and spent time as a first responder. Here is where she began to tell me about two powerful forces she put into play: gaining exposure to things she didn’t know and asking questions.
The power of questions
No one told her to do either, but, more importantly, no one stopped her. With that freedom, time after time, she put herself in places where she could see and learn, not how to conquer the world, but simpler things revealed with simple questions she didn’t need a degree to ask, just curiosity. And that’s exactly what she did: She asked questions.
For example, while training as an EMT, she found herself alongside firefighters, paramedics, police officers and other first responders. She intermixed with nurses, orderlies, doctors and administrators when they handed off hospital patients. This wide range of people touched the same world of care but in different yet overlapping ways. With every exposure, she asked questions, not the profound so much as the obvious yet easily unasked: “What do you do?” “What do you like about this job?” “When you finish your job, who picks up where you leave off?” With each question, she learned — about those jobs, the people in them and, most of all, about herself. Bit by bit, she was honing who she was and how it all added up.
She confidently described how she liked a certain amount of order in her work. EMTs didn’t have that luxury, she’d deduced. They arrived at places where life was messy: accidents. Emergency rooms felt relatively more orderly. She liked that, but she felt a deeper need for connection. Eventually, she learned about critical care units and how caregivers there were assigned fewer patients whom they got to know intimately, caring for their every need. She felt a pull.
These were just some of the specific, well-thought-out things she told me about the path and opportunities she was enthusiastically pursuing. She seemed ready not only to get the most from her “job’” as a student but to keep exposing herself and asking questions. Out of the mouths of babes.
Imagine employees who learned, contributed and grew in that way. What does it take to have those in your charge to do what this young woman does: Gain exposure, broad exposure? Asking questions — without limit, without judgment? Self-directing their progress? Compared to what it costs not to, the answer is it doesn’t take much. You only have to allow them to practice doing it.
Admit it: Leaders want their most valuable assets to become their best. They often assume that it takes massive effort. Sometimes, however, it takes a lot less to gain much more. One of the most valuable things a leader can do is to create an environment where employees are not only permitted but are expected to, and even rewarded for, gaining exposure and asking questions.
Larry Robertson, named a Fulbright scholar in 2021, is the founder of Lighthouse Consulting and works, writes and guides at the nexus of creativity, leadership and entrepreneurship. He’s the author “The Language of Man: Learning to Speak Creativity,” “A Deliberate Pause: Entrepreneurship and Its Moment in Human Progress” and the new “Rebel Leadership: How To Thrive in Uncertain Times.”
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