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All outward appearances were that this old lady should not be taken seriously. Unfortunately for the salesperson, she had honed her negotiating skills with more than 10,000 hours of experience. Here is the story.

A Master at Work

One of my favorite things to do with my grandmother, Baba Vickie, was to go shopping. It didn’t matter what we were buying, it was just great to watch a master at work. One particularly memorable trip was to a department store to buy a couch for my college apartment. We walked into the store and I started moving towards the nearest salesperson when Baba stopped me. She whispered, “let’s go over and talk to the other salesperson” who was across the room. By the time we left the store, we bought the couch I wanted at a significant discount . . . with a few pillows and a lamp thrown in for free!Baba and Me

As we walked out of the store I asked her why she chose that particular salesperson. Baba simply replied, “he was hungrier than the other one”. Just like in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink, my grandmother was one of those people that could make an expert call in a “blink” of an eye. Baba became an expert at negotiating by successfully selling her family’s crushed red pepper at the Bitola public market since she was a child. She knew how to size up the competition, gauge customer interests and needs, and she knew how to close a deal better than anyone I have ever known.

Things are not always what they seem

The many people who underestimated the old woman with the thick accent did so to their own detriment. They assumed she was a simple person and a push over and didn’t have much to add. But, as Phaedrus once said:

“Things are not always what they seem; the first appearance deceives many; the intelligence of a few perceives what has been carefully hidden.”

This type of story gets repeated everyday:

  • The resume screening process that passes over the expert,
  • The sophisticated college graduate thinking that the folksy field manager doesn’t understand the business,
  • A hiring manager discounting an interview candidate that doesn’t have the same career path that he had.

Getting the best out of a team, finding the right talent to bring into an organization, and making innovation a part of your culture are all key issues in business today. Being able to see “what has been carefully hidden” can be the difference between winning and losing. And most big companies are losing the innovation game.

Innovation and the Role of Outsiders

So how do you create an organization where diversity of thought is valued? Making a conscious decision to hire people that are different from you, “outsiders”, may be a good place to start.  According to an article in The Atlantic“outsiders” are responsible for a striking number of inventions and innovations. In fact, Alph Bingham, Innocentive founder and former CEO, notes that “Ninety to 95 percent of the time, the individual who comes up with the awarded solution does not have the background and resume’ of someone you would hire to solve the problem.” 

Now I am not suggesting that my grandmother would be the right person to solve a jet propulsion problem, but there is a “sweet spot” where foundational expertise from outside the industry can lead to breakthrough results. From the same Atlantic article, “In fact, being an expert in an area distinct from the field of challenge was a statistically significant predictor of success. The secret ingredient was what Karim Lakhani, Harvard Professor, calls “interdisciplinary expertise” – the ability to draw connections between one subject and another.”

If you have the courage to bring in “outsiders” with skill sets from an adjacent field, they may provide new insights to your team’s discourse. And that’s important. When everyone at the table is just like you (same background, same likes, same dislikes) then one of you is redundant. Now don’t get me wrong, having a team where people share the same interests will make the office banter fun, but when it comes to solving problems, chances are you will keep coming at the problem from the same vantage point. [see Einstein’s definition of insanity].

It was amazing how many people made assumptions about my grandmother without looking much beyond the surface. It was their loss on so many levels. Like Baba used to say to me,  “Oh well, what do I know, I can’t speak English very well” with a big smile on her face as she walked out of the store with a few extra items thrown in for free.

About Leadership Stories

Leadership stories are drawn from the bedtime ritual at our house which usually finished with “Dad tell me a story”. These stories are about our family: Who we are, where we came from, and the sharing of life lessons that were passed on to me. As I told the stories, it became very clear to me the significant impact that they have had on my life, my career, and my leadership style.

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