Adam Steele was late in his annual blue highways journey. Normally he did the trip over the summer, but his company was struggling to accommodate summer vacations. The problem was that retirements had exhausted their bench strength. There just weren’t enough people trained to do some of the jobs that required higher skills. He decided to ask Claire Jennings, his VP of Human Resources, to join him so they would have car time to discuss strategies to avoid future gaps in skills.
An unexpected advantage of the late summer/early fall trip was that many of the communities they visited were having fairs and festivals. Both Adam and Claire were drawn to the craft displays. They were impressed by the level of craftsmanship, and before long the car was filled with gifts for the upcoming holiday season.
Adam decided to show Claire how he conducted curiosity conversations. He loved talking with people and getting to know them. A conversation with a woman who made incredible furniture was typical of many of the conversations they had.
“Your furniture is amazing,” Adam began. “I expect that requires a lot of skill. How did you learn how to make these beautiful objects?”
“I’m a commercial loan officer at our local bank. My training is in finance. So most of the skill I’ve learned in furniture making is self-taught. I do have a person who helped me with the basics, but I really needed to teach myself.”
From there, the conversation continued about how she developed her skills through awareness, continuous improvement, and acceptance. Adam and Claire split up and had similar conversations with other artisans. They were particularly impressed by the flexibility in the skill sets of those they talked to. When they compared notes they identified similar practices. They made a list of what they gathered from the conversations.
- You need to learn how to learn
- You need to have your own standards
- You need to have an awareness of the “tricks” to your craft
- You can never be satisfied with your talent
- You have to learn how to accept the results of your effort
The journey continued with a number of visits to the fairs and festivals. But the final day was different. As Adam and Claire were driving, they came upon a high school with an interesting sign out front. “State football champions…” They counted that the school had won 22 state football championships.
Adam knew that he needed a conversation with their coach. What he and Claire discovered was that the championship story was not what they expected. The school had the lowest student population of any school in its conference. To field a team, they needed participation from virtually every boy and many girls. They were undersized against every team they played. What made them a winning team was their flexibility. Every player had at least five positions they played. The game plan changed from week to week so there was no way their competition could prepare for them. “I call it my snowflake attack,” explained their coach. “Our kids are remarkably flexible in what they can do. That’s because they were raised on farms where you had to learn how to do everything.”
As Adam and Claire began their trip home, Claire said: “I think I’ve learned more about human resources this month than I ever learned in all my training. I’ll have a flexibility plan on your desk next week based on what I’ve learned.”
Adam began to think about his own flexibility plan for his company. Inviting Claire to join him wasn’t in the plan, but it should have been. He wanted to start asking each of the succession team for his business to join him on a future blue highways journey and to learn how to have and learn from curiosity conversations.
If there was one thing that Adam learned from these journeys, it was that wisdom doesn’t come from books. It comes from being curious about living.
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“It’s easier to think outside the box if you don’t draw one around yourself.”
– Jason Kravits (photographer)