“Mountains of gold would not seduce some men, yet flattery would break them down.” – Henry Ward Beecher (Proverbs From Plymouth Pulpit, 1887)

There is a businessman I know, SP, who is considered by some to be occasionally bombastic, if not arrogant. And even from my braggadocian perspective, he sometimes blows a tad too hard. Not that he isn’t everything he claims to be. He’s smart, talented, and hardworking. And his ambition is boundless.

He’s enjoyed a fast and successful career, largely due to his natural talents. But he has something else that helps him — something you wouldn’t expect if you were distracted by his horn blowing. It’s not a talent but a powerful psychological tool that improves his chances of success by allowing him to gather the knowledge and experience he lacks. His secret? He asks questions of smart people. Important questions. And when he asks, he flatters.

Let me give you an example. If SP wanted to launch a new product, he would think about all the experts he knew in the market into which he would be selling. He would identify marketers and idea mongers, media specialists and technicians, salesmen and customer-service experts.

In the weeks that followed, he would contact all the people on his list and secure some time with them — however much they could spare. He would begin each interview by explaining what he was doing and why he was seeking help from that particular expert.

He would be very specific in his reasons. (“I’m asking you these questions because you have had so many great successes with ABC. My favorite has always been XXX.”) With the mentor/protégé relationship thus established, he would ask a limited number of questions carefully selected to draw upon the experience and expertise of the individual he was questioning.

He doesn’t do this in order to discover some blueprint that he can slavishly follow. Rather, it is to stand his own ideas up against a wind tunnel of experience. And to make sure he can continue to refine his new ideas with the same intellectual resources.

In other words, his questioning process has a threefold purpose:

1. to test his own ideas

2. to discover better ones

3. to reinforce the mentor/protégé relationship.

This is no small accomplishment. When you consider that SP is relatively young and experienced and that he works in a competitive environment where jealousies and possessive natures abound, you’ll realize that it takes courage and cleverness to do this effectively. If he were to bungle it, he’d risk making himself look the fool. But that’s only a small part of what he risks. If the interviews were seen in the wrong light — as one-sided shams — he’d lose the support of the experts he had cultivated. He might even erect for himself an invisible wall of resentment and non-cooperation.

Here’s what it feels like to be on the receiving end of SP’s request:

First, You are curious. You’ve heard he’s smart and aggressive. What does he want from you? Next, you are disarmed. He’s friendly and deferential. Then, when he tells you exactly what he wants and why he wants to speak to you in particular, you are flattered. Here you have in this bright young person someone savvy enough to recognize your genius.

He seems like the real thing, because he knows your accomplishments in detail. He has been studying your career, and that’s actually rather complimentary. I mean, you can’t get your spouse or children to take a real interest in your workplace accomplishments — so what’s wrong with a little admiration from another source?

When you begin to give SP your ideas, he laps them up. He nods. He smiles. He seems to be “getting” you. “Yes!” he’ll say now and then. “That’s so right.” And “That’s great!” The more you say, the more you want to say — because the process itself feels good.

Somewhere along the way, you realize that (a) you’ve spent more time with him than you planned to, (b) you’ve told him much more than you intended to, and (c) he should be paying you for your good advice but (d) you don’t care — because it feels good.

After you’ve given him all your best ideas and specific recommendations (sometimes including other experts he can contact by using your name), he thanks you immediately and specifically. He compliments you on whichever of your suggestions he especially likes and commends you again for your superior knowledge.

Interestingly, he does not promise to implement all of your suggestions, but you may assume he will. He does not offer to send you the finished product, but when you ask him to, he tells you that he’d consider it an honor. You end the interview feeling as if you have begun a very satisfying relationship.

Here’s what you don’t know.

He is going through this process with at least a half-dozen other experts. Maybe twice that many. He is going to each one for somewhat different reasons and asking somewhat different questions, but the process itself is the same.

SP’s method — this very shrewd process of establishing multiple mentors — makes enormous sense when you consider it. It gives him not only the wisdom of one person who has been successfully doing what he’s doing for years and years but also the perspective of comparing the ideas and judgments of multiple experts.

This is a system that works. I have seen the results personally. SP’s track record of successful new product launches — and winning sales promotions — is astonishingly good. Now that I think about it — and here’s a humbling thought — it’s been better than my own.

When SP’s effort succeeds, he will contact you once again to thank you for your help. He won’t give you all the credit, but you’ll probably take it. At least you will if you are like me. You’ll think, “Boy, SP is lucky he came to me — and he knows it. I really made this pretty-good idea sizzle.”

Of course, what you won’t realize — and probably never will — is that there are many more people who contributed to SP’s latest triumph who feel the same way.

I happened to discover that I was not the only one by accident — through the interception of a misdirected e-mail. (See Message #180, “E-Mail and Return Buttons,” and Message #340, “Practice E-Mail Etiquette.”) My first reaction was one of surprise and embarrassment. I was a pedagogic cuckold. On reflection, I realized that I had never been misled, that the illusion of being SP’s sole mentor was entirely mine (my ego having filled in spaces that were, alas, just spaces), and that it was perfectly good to have been a significant contributor to a collaborative masterpiece — engineered by someone smart (and humble) enough to ask for help.

I consider SP’s system a truly great secret of success. In fact, it is so effective, and so “obvious” in retrospect, that I’m embarrassed that I’ve never used it and rather amazed that I’ve had any success on my own.

Our great strengths are always also our greatest weaknesses. The pride that drives us to succeed can also limit our success. What SP has done requires the temporary abnegation of pride. Or perhaps something beyond pride — the wisdom to understand that one’s own ideas are not always the best ideas.

In any case, I’ve promised myself that from now on I’m going to test all my good ideas against the experience of other experts. I’m going to ask a lot of smart people a lot of questions, and I’m going to thank them for their answers. It won’t be easy for me. I am an arrogant bastard who doesn’t like to ask questions. But I can’t deny SP’s success. It would be not only arrogant but also foolish to do so.

You are certainly less psychologically impaired than I am, so it should be easier for you to do as SP does. Next time you have to try something new — a product, a promotion, a sales pitch, or whatever — identify a group of people who can help you get it right. Contact each of them individually. Ask for their help honestly. Thank them. Use the best of what they suggest. And then, if the effort succeeds, thank them again.

You will not only improve your chances for success but also develop a council of expert advisers who will identify your successes with their own. That’s the kind of help you would have a hard time paying for.

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