What Do I Not Know?

“She could be the President of the United States someday.”

“She may not even remember working here.”

“How can I make it so that she will never forget?”

“What can I do to make this the best job she’s ever had?”

These were the thoughts that crossed my mind in rapid succession, in one of the most pivotal moments of my career. I didn’t identify it as such, not right then, but looking back it was one of those moments that had a hand in forming me, determining who I am as a leader, who I aspire to be; how I interact with my customers, my colleagues, my team. How I engage problems.

She was late for work. It wasn’t the first time it had happened.

I was young, fiery, a newly minted assistant manager. I was having a Grown Up Conversation; challenging this part time employee to show up to work on time, trying to instill some work ethic, a sense of responsibility. I found myself talking about the possibility of promotion, dangling opportunity for advancement if only she could be more reliable, assuming that she was driven by the same things I was.

She was quiet, mostly. She mentioned the bus being delayed.

Something gave me pause. I looked into her eyes, and saw… nothing. Nothing I was saying was getting through. I stopped talking, and looked at her. Everything seemed to slow down. And then, that voice in my head:

“She could be the President of the United States someday.”

“She may not even remember working here.”

“How can I make it so that she will never forget?”

“What can I do to make this the best job she’s ever had?”

It was just a moment. A split second internal narrative. Looking back on that moment, everything is crystal clear. I remember the lighting, the feeling of the desk beneath my fingers. Everything is a little dramatic, I know. Even the questions that crossed my mind were a little dramatic. But for better or worse, the moment has stuck with me for almost 15 years.

I woke from whatever reverie I was in and looked at her. Saw her. I realized that I’d worked with her for months, but I had no idea why she actually worked there. What she was looking for in a job. Who she was as a person. Something in me began to shift.

I held her accountable for the tardiness. We finished our conversation. As I walked away from the office, I was distracted. I knew there was something I’d been missing, and I wasn’t willing to move on until I’d put more thought into it.

What I came away with was pretty simple. It was a question. I asked myself that question about this part time employee, that day. And I’ve asked myself the same question about every person, project, and problem I’ve encountered since then.

“What do I not know?”

It’s a simple question, really. But by asking it of myself, I alter my approach to any given person, project, or situation. I am no longer the expert, seeking to impart knowledge. No longer the gunslinger, coming in shooting. I am a student. Of people. Projects. Problems. My mind is open, my eyes wide. I assume nothing, except the simple truth that I don’t have all the facts. It forces me to ask questions, to listen closely, to observe. And as I lead, I see my team as people first, employees second. There is always a story, everyone’s motivation is different, and by understanding them and what drives them I am best positioned to lead and support them.

When I started paying attention, asking myself the question, I learned some things about that employee. I learned that she wanted to be understood. She wanted someone to place value on her, put faith in her. She wanted to be inspired. She didn’t just want a job, she wanted to belong. She wanted to be challenged. She wanted to be held accountable, not just because rules matter (although they do), but because someone believed she was capable of more.

She started showing up to work on time. She thrived. I lost contact with her years ago but last I heard, she had my old job.

When I slowed down and shifted my perspective, I learned things about her that were invaluable to me as her leader. I also learned a valuable lesson that changed the trajectory of my career. There is always a story, if I’m willing to acknowledge that my initial perspective is limited.

So as I step out into the world today and take stock of the people and challenges I encounter, I do so with a sense of anticipation; eyes wide and mind open, eager to ask myself…

What do I not know?

© Joshua Dufek, 2017