What was the question the CEO was really trying to ask

Mr Burns, a consultant in Southern California, provides consulting on the management of change to senior executives.

He had to go to the CEO of a very big company and talk to him about how he was going to manage a big change in terms of automation.

Burns pulled out his little laptop computer when he went to the CEO, whose monitoring office was overlooking the factory floor.

The first thing Burns thinks about is, “how much am I going to get paid?”, so he pulls out his trusty laptop computer and sticks in his little word-processing disk.

He opens a big contract document which says, “you will pay me so many dollars for so many hours of my time.” As he is scrolling through the document, the CEO is staring at him.

There is an unmistakable sound that a chief executive makes when he wants to ask a question. Burns says, “How can I help you?” The chief executive points at the screen and he says, “Where do the words go?”

This is a deadly question. Burns is thinking, “What kind of a fool is this? Clearly it is a stupid question.” “They disappear” might be an answer. No, that’s not the way he wants to answer the CEO.

How could the CEO possibly be that stupid? Maybe the CEO is asking the question in a metaphysical sense. Where do the words go? Do they enter into some cosmic consciousness? No, the CEO cannot be that stupid, either.

Burns finally said that there is a little mechanical scroll in the computer that winds up all these words in the word processor. Which, of course, was the right answer for the CEO.

It was the right answer because of the question the CEO was really trying to ask:

“Do you and I have communication? Can I, CEO, ask you stupid questions without being made to look like a fool because I am trying to learn something I do not understand?

If you laugh at me, or if you are sarcastic to me, or if you deliberately misinterpret what I am trying to ask, or if you make little of my questions, we don’t have communication.” This is what the CEO was trying to ask.

Suresh Shah, M.D., Pathfinders Enterprise

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