You Gotta Ask the Question

Over the course of my career, I have been offered much advice. However, when people ask me what the best advice I ever got was I always come back to the same story.

In my first job out of college I was a Regional Director for my college fraternity, Sigma Phi Epsilon. The job consisted of traveling through a region of the country and working with the chapters there to help them with leadership development, management, and recruitment — sort of a management consultant. I traveled in New York and New England, visiting our 27 chapters there.

One of the most important roles Regional Directors played was in a recruiting alumni volunteers to work with individual chapters. Strong volunteer support is the best predictor of long-term success for a chapter. And I had one chapter in desperate need of strong alumni support — so I set about recruiting some.

I found a former staff member who was local and had the right personality and I asked him to brunch — the perfect candidate. At brunch, I talked about the challenges the chapter was facing, the importance of alumni support, the need for a strong alumni leader with a forceful personality. It was obvious to us both I needed and wanted his help — but I didn’t ask him to help. I just talked about the issues. I guess I was hoping he would just volunteer.

After 20 minutes he looked at me and said “Jeff, you gotta ask the question. No one can say yes if you don’t ask the question.” So I asked him to get involved and he said “Absolutely.”

This may seem like an obvious point, but it is shocking how often people avoid asking the question. I’ve watched sales reps walk out of meetings and never ask for the business — and these are people who are paid (often very well) to ask the question! I’ve seen bizdev discussions wander around in circles because no one wants to ask about doing a deal. People just don’t like asking the question, because you don’t know what answer you’re going to get.

Sure, when you ask the question you might get a “no.” It happens. But if you don’t ask the question you will never get a “yes”. As Mark Suster has said “You don’t ask, you don’t get.” And at least a “no” lets you know where you stand and allows you to ask why and start addressing the underlying issues (or move on if there is no way to get to “yes”). But you will be shocked how often just asking for what you want will get it for you. So the next time you find yourself talking around what you really want, remember that “you gotta ask the question” and do it.

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