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Dave Conrad: Is experience the best teacher?

September 21, 2018

I am writing to you about something I experience at work almost every day. I find that I often receive the best advice and insights from my fellow workers who do not have an education beyond high school. But they have good work experience. They seem to know how to get to the point and are able to speak to me in direct terms. I am not saying that education will “clutter up” the ability of people to say what they mean; rather, I am saying that someone does not need a doctorate in some field to be able to speak plainly to others and offer good advice. What are your thoughts? — C

Dear C: I know exactly what you mean. I, too, have received the best advice and information from reliable people that did not have a lot of letters after their name. To be clear, I believe education is the best thing we have to solve our problems, but education without application and experience will only help you win at the game “Jeopardy.”

Experience means “been there — done that.” It is the action component of having faced difficult — or even routine — challenges and then responding with appropriate and effective solutions. I teach MBA students for Augsburg University. The students that come into my classroom have undergraduate degrees in various disciplines and they also have varying levels of job experience. What I hear from these students is not what they learned in a college classroom, but mostly what they faced and took away from some very humbling or fulfilling job experiences. Accordingly, we teach them business principles and theories, but we also get them out into the world to apply what they learn, and to learn even more from seasoned employees that may not have a vast, formal education.

I think back to my most valuable learning experiences — and I reflect on what I learned in college — but I seem to remember most those things that rocked or changed my world when I was “on the streets.” Just the other day, I was thinking about a time that I was kicked out of a sales account. To this day, I still do not know why. All I know is that it was an embarrassing and degrading experience that taught me to never trust my competition, never ignore my customers, and to be ready for some humbling experiences. As humiliating as that experience was, it taught me much more than what I would learn from a similar experience in a book or from a professor.

The more you learn, the more you earn

I want my readers to know that they should talk to as many different people as they can at work — if they can get the time. I believe I received some of the best information from the receptionists at various companies that I sold to, or wished to sell to. I always tried to be sincerely friendly with these folks, because they knew who everybody was and what everybody did. They knew who communicated with whom and also — this is huge — what was working and what was not. I never wanted to get these folks in trouble for telling me valuable things, so I kept all conversations confidential.

I watched as the more arrogant and demanding competitors came in the door and addressed and treated the receptionists poorly, or in a demeaning way. Guess what? They missed “golden opportunities” to learn things that would have benefited their sales success. As my dad said, “Be kind to everyone as you climb up the ladder of success, because you might see them again on your way back down.”

Always look for those people who can listen carefully to what you have to say and then respond with some thinking, or an answer that you never thought of. On occasion, get as many different people as possible into your meeting rooms and ask them about what they see. Get customers in the room talking about better ways to help them solve problems. Get production employees in the room to discuss the errors going on and what they believe may help.

Finally, get out into the marketplace to find out what the “sneaky competition” is doing — or may do. Simply, learn from others with “real world” experience versus sitting at the meeting table thinking you have all of the answers.

As we all know — or should know — listening carefully to what others have to say may provide the best insight you can find. Never cut anybody off when they are explaining something, because you may miss very important things. I hear people say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” when the speaker is trying to finish a sentence or train of thought. This is not intelligence; this is both rude and inappropriate.

The most open and respectful listeners will hear the most things from people who have something to say.

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