Continuing where we left off last Monday, excerpts from my book:
“The master key to knowledge is to keep asking questions.”—Abelard
Of course, there’s no better way to draw information into our minds than to ask questions. It’s hard to beat starting with the old-fashioned who, what, when, where, why, how much, and how.
Knowing our context always pays off. When I began working as a book buyer for a department store chain, I had the chance to sit down with the sales representatives of each major publisher. For years they had called on accounts and heard the same questions:
· What are your leading titles this season?
· How many copies are you printing?
· What’s your advertising budget on this book?
· Is the author doing a publicity tour?
But I did not ask these questions, at least not right away. There would be plenty of time for these questions later. Instead, I asked:
· How big is your company?
· Do you publish in any specialty?
· What are your company’s strengths and weaknesses?
· What’s your market share?
· What are the most successful books you’ve ever published?
· What is the personality of your company?
· Who runs your company?
· What are they like?
· Are they new to the business, or a veteran?
· Who’s your boss, and what are they like?
· Where is your company based?
· Are the offices fancy or simple?
· How long have you worked for this company?
· Do you like it?
· What could your company do better?
That may sound like a lot of questions, but it took me only fifteen to thirty minutes to get the answers. They are questions you don’t have to ask every time you meet. Gathering and comparing this information from all our suppliers gave me a huge advantage in understanding the industry and how it worked. When it came time to say, “Yes, I want to order 1,000 copies of this book, but I want to have the author sign them in our store,” I was better prepared to know what the answer would be and how to respond to it. Being familiar with the abilities, needs, and tendencies of my suppliers, I knew what to ask them for and how to get a creative advantage over the competition.
Remember all the Pan American Airlines pilots who lost their jobs when the original Pan Am went broke? Many of them went to work for the airline in the 70s and early 80s. They bemoaned the death of the company, and blamed a million factors. Many had been taken by surprise by its demise. If these folks had only taken the time to study the airline industry before going to work in it, they could have seen that the future lie with Southwest, not with Pan Am, which had been troubled for many years. Southwest was hiring pilots all through these years, and the people who went to work for Southwest are glad they did. It is a tragedy to see people make bad decisions when the information to avoid them is often readily available.
Be curious about the world around you. It is the context for everything you do and everything that happens to you. No matter what your position or your enterprise, the more you understand your context, the more successful you’ll be.