Learn, Answer, Reward, Repeat

By Keith Dugdale

What’s 9 + 3?

If you have a traditional, school-based education like me, you’ve probably known the answer to this question since you were about 5, give or take a year or two depending on how ‘advanced’ you were. And as the years of your education progressed, you were expected to know the answers to lots of other questions as well – like being able to repeat your twelve times tables, understand fractions and derivatives, or know who is the fifth wife of Henry the Eighth (Catherine Howard who ended up being separated from her head, in case you were wondering).

In school we are taught that all that matters is knowing the answer. Knowing the correct answer gets us good grades, it gets us in the spotlight up on stage receiving academic awards, it gets us special treats from our parents and kind words and shiny stickers from our teachers, it gives us entrance to the University course of our choice. Then when we go to University, this cycle repeats itself for another 3-6 years.

Learn, answer, reward.


Then we head out into the big, bad world and get a job. Most employers will aim to recruit those with the best results, from the best universities. So those who are best able to answer the questions, those who are perceived to have the best knowledge and expertise, are again rewarded.

And then many of these same people, who their whole lives have been rewarded for what they know and how well they can answer questions, get sent out into the world and told to sell something. In nearly all cases these are people who didn’t actually realise this would ever be required of them. They studied law or engineering or accounting or economics or town planning – but no one ever told them they would need to sell anything. So it’s no real surprise what happens when they meet with a client or prospective client for a ‘sales meeting’. Their years of training, since they were 5 years old, tells them that they will be rewarded for demonstrating that they know a lot of stuff, and that they have all of the answers and are an expert in what they do.

This actually worked out OK for a lot of people for many years. And then along came the internet and globalisation and the knowledge economy vanishes. This is not to say that you no longer need to know things, especially in industries such as medicine and the law, however what has changed is that clients now know they can get that knowledge from a multitude of sources. And what clients value more than anything is a sales person who is both curious and helpful. Who will ask great questions, and help steer them in the right direction to find answers to those questions, whether it is something they have knowledge in or not.

And that is where the traditional education system stops us being great at sales.

Knowledge drives out curiosity

Einstein is often touted for his brilliance, but according to him his greatest attribute was actually his curiosity, and his absolute passion for understanding why. Unfortunately, our Education system, while still being based on rewarding knowledge, drives much of this curiosity out.

I recently ran a session for 35 new recruits in an engineering firm and at the end of the session asked how many of them in their Undergradutate degree program had received any training whatsoever that related to developing their curiosity, questioning skills or ability to build and maintain relationships. Not one of them had.

As a result, we now have organisations full of experts who have no curiosity and do not have the skills to ask great, inquisitive questions which both engage the client and help the sales person truly understand what is happening in the client’s world.

The 2013 Future employment report talks about how the only two differentiators for people at work will shortly be innovation and relationship building. The exact two things that most people are generally not trained in throughout their education.

Will this ever change?

For this to really change, the change has to happen back when we are 5 years old. Because trying to change this learned behaviour when you are 18 or 30 or 55 is much, much more painful. But it’s really pleasing to see a number of organisations still trying to help their people make this change – despite how painful it might be. Here are a few examples I’m aware of where this change is taking place:

  1. An Australian engineering firm who will only recruit graduates who had a customer facing hospitality job through university – because the graduates will have already learned some great customer service skills. Even if you are the top graduate, you won’t get a job here if you don’t have this on your resume.
  2. A law firm who actively do not recruit the top law graduates because there is evidence of a reverse correlation between the absolute elite in terms of IQ and those with the EQ necessary for building relationships. They also tend to leave their employer earlier as they need the next intellectual stimulus.
  3. A big 4 firm who now actively look for people who do not have a tertiary education because they recognised that by only recruiting university graduates they were immediately taking out of their potential talent pool thousands of people who may have the attributes that are needed for the business world of the future.

I even remember 25 years ago in the UK my firm, one of the big 6 in those days, only recruited students who had taken a gap year. They did this because the believed that graduates would have learned more in that year (such as budgeting, how to have conversations with a variety of people, thinking for themselves) that would differentiate them in their careers than they would ever learn in a classroom.

What can you do to hire curious thinkers in your business?

Probably the number one challenge most of my clients realise they face when they start working with us is the recognition that many of their current sales team will not be able to change these lifelong learned behaviours. They won’t be able to truly develop the attitudes and skills that will be needed in the future.

So as you look at who you recruit for your sales force (including technical professionals who will be required to sell) think first about what attributes and skills will make the great salesperson of the future, tear up the ‘way we do things around here’ and focus on hiring people who are curious and want to genuinely understand their clients. Because training knowledge is easier than training behaviour.

Oh, and by the way, 9 + 3 = a foot in the USA, a dodecagon, the number of letters in the Rotokas alphabet, and a dozen (unless you are a baker, of course).

Do you want to join in the conversation on this topic? Head over to LinkedIn where Keith first published this article.