“The trouble with every one of us is that we don’t think enough.  Knowledge is the result of thought, and thought is the keynote of success in any business.”

-Thomas J. Watson (Founder and CEO of IBM)

The coolest job I ever had was when I was in college and was a flight attendant on IBM’s corporate marketing jet.  I went to Northeastern University in Boston, which was the pioneer behind the Co-operative Education experience.  The Co-op experience is where you are either studying in college or working in your chosen major year round and it takes five years to obtain your Bachelors degree.  I was a Business Major with a concentration in Marketing, so I was able to loosely make the connection that I would learn about business and marketing by dressing up in a three piece suit and wing tip shoes flying around the country with IBM’s top sales reps and most strategic F1000 customers.  Slinging danishes and coffee in exchange for invaluable insights into how huge technology deals get done, it seemed like a a great learning opportunity for me.

What really struck me is that all of IBM’s top sales reps and Execs that flew on the corporate jet knew that I was a college student, yet they were incredibly gracious in sharing their time and business experiences with me as I peppered them with questions.  The original “Think Pad” from IBM was not the ubiquitous personal computer that we all know today.  Rather, it was a small leather pad that all IBM employees were given (including a lowly college co-op student like me) to write down inspirations and ideas to improve the business.  In fact, IBM’s first Trademark filed in 1935 was “Think”, predating even trademarking their new company name of “IBM” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_J._Watson).  All employees were encouraged to think and share their ideas.  Even me at the soaking wet age of 19 years old and a sophomore in College.

One right of passage for an IBM flight attendant was the opportunity to meet Thomas Watson Jr.  He was the founder’s son and longtime CEO of IBM, who was anointed one of the “Top 100 Influential People of the 20th Century” and “The Greatest Capitalist in History” by Fortune and Time magazines (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Watson_Jr.).  Mr. Watson, as we called him, loved dispensing wisdom and business advice to us up and coming College students.  We were coached by the veteran IBM pilots on how to approach Mr. Watson and what to say.  So I nervously approached him in the cockpit (he was a pilot with his own Learjet) and asked him for his best business advice for someone that wanted to make a career in technology sales.  He replied, “There are three things that I can share with you that you should always remember and practice throughout your business career.  First, treat everyone you meet with equal respect. Regardless of whether it’s the janitor or CEO, because everyone deserves respect and (he laughed heartily as an aside) you never know who will become your boss.  Second, if a customer asks you a question and you don’t know the answer.   Tell them that you don’t know the answer but that you’ll find out the answer and then get back to them promptly with the answer.  Lastly, constantly challenge yourself to think about new and better ways to do things.  Never be satisfied with the status quo or accept the fact that just because you were told by a superior to do something a certain way that it is the only way or best way to accomplish that business task or goal.”

Mr. Watson shared that business advice with me in 1983 and I took it to heart then and have adhered to it ever since in my business career.  My concern stems from the fact that I fear we’ve largely lost the ability to apply critical thought in business today.  In fact, I would submit that most companies stifle independent thinking and prefer to have their employees blindly follow the marching orders and do what they are told. This troublesome trend is only exacerbated by Social Media and the “instant gratification” society that we’ve become.  Sometimes quality thought requires time and more than 140 characters to express.  Yet, the point of emphasis and reward systems seem to always favor speed over quality today.

The question that I pose to today’s business leaders is: Are you encouraging quality thinking from your employees?  Are you rewarding it? How?