I learned a very profound thing from my partner Dave Jilk at Feld Technologies 25 years ago. I have been practicing, and getting better at it, ever since. It’s a core part of the way I work with people and I have Dave to thank for it.
First, some context. Feld Technologies was my first company. Dave and I started it in 1987. We hired, then fired, a bunch of part time people and then just worked together – the two of us – for the next 18 months until we hired our first employee (Shawn Broderick). We were cash flow positive every month because we never raised any outside money. We both did everything, working very closely together. As the company grew, we partitioned a lot of things – I became the sales guy – generating much of our new business. Dave became the software guy, managing the team and getting the work done. But we continued to work closely together – he sold plenty of business and I did plenty of work, including doing all the network integration work for our clients, and occasionally managed something.
We were both young and very inexperienced so we learned a lot together, mostly by screwing things up and then fixing them. Sometimes we had a lot of fun, sometimes we were under tremendous stress, and every now and then one of us was miserable. We were (and continue to be) best friends so when one of us was very unhappy, the other could pick up on the vibe quickly and we talked about it.
I remember a stretch of time where I could tell that Dave was really aggravated with me. This wasn’t uncommon – our love and respect included plenty of “moments” as we were both developing into real adults. But this aggravation seemed deeper and didn’t surface in an obvious way.
I remember taking Dave out to dinner at a sushi place called Nara around the corner from our office at 260 Franklin Street in Boston. I can picture how the night felt – dark and empty with plenty of downtown Boston ambient noise. We went to Nara a lot – this was way before sushi became trendy and it was one of the few places in Boston, located a few blocks away from our office. They had excellent huge bottles of cold beer and amazing fish. And it was always quiet and there was always a booth open.
We sat down, got our beers, and I started with the issue, as I often do.
I asked, “Dave, what’s bugging you so much right now.”
“Why? What am I doing that’s bugging you.”
“Working with you is like reading the last page of a novel first.”
I sat nursing my beer for a quiet, long minute pondering this. I mentally read the last page of a novel and thought I knew what Dave meant. Eventually Dave broke the silence.
“When I bring an issue to you, you immediately tell me the answer. 99% of the time you are correct. So I then go spend all of my time looking for a solution that is better that yours. But I only find it 1% of the time. This is incredibly unsatisfying to me.”
I think he may have added something like “fucking demotivating” but by this point I totally groked it. We had an awesome dinner discussing what over the last 25 years we have regularly referred to as “the last page in the book problem.”
Today, I try hard not to start by telling the answer immediately. The CEOs and entrepreneurs I work with need to learn how to get to the answer. And their answer, in many cases, will be better than mine since I don’t have enough context or information to be right 99% of the time like I did when I was the president of Feld Technologies. But even more importantly, a great CEO knows this also. His team doesn’t want to always hear the answer first. Sometimes they do, or need to, but often they want to be able to talk openly, collect data, and come to it over time.
This brief moment has had a profound impact on how I work. While I despise Mr. Socrates (the guy who just asks question after question after question and never expresses a point of view) and don’t emulate him, I definitely ask more “guided questions” when presented with a problem. I tell more stories to try to give examples of how others have solved the problem. And occasionally, when I realize the CEO is asking for the answer (e.g. when Bart Lorang, in the middle of a board meeting, says “Brad, just tell me the fucking answer – I know you know it.”) I tell the answer. But in the back of my mind I always remember that part of learning the answer is figuring out how to find it.