This evening I had a sudden realisation... For the entirety of my professional career, I have been using a phrase that was not my own.

As a part of my own personal development over the years, I have applied much thought to my core beliefs and values. Those core aspects by which I wish to conduct myself, both professionally and personally.

One of these core values is to give thanks and recognition where it is due. Especially to appreciate those who have impacted me in a positive way.

With that in mind:

To Fraser Speir - Since my first job at the age of 17 years old when you and I worked together, I have lost count of the number of times that I have repeated the following:

"There is no such thing as stupid questions... only stupid answers"

It was my first job straight out of school... In hindsight I was so very far outside of my comfort zone, I didn't actually realise how far that was until many many years later!

At the time, I deeply struggled with the transition from the classroom into a commercial environment. In a lot of cases I found myself working with experienced professionals of 10yrs-20yrs my senior. As you can expect, whilst I was full of ambition and an eagerness to learn, I was also full of inexperience, insecurities and immaturity.

Looking back nearly 20 years later, most colleagues were incredibly patient with me whilst I learned the ropes, but few more so than Fraser.

Fraser was the team lead of a different area of the business to me... One afternoon we were in the server room together. Fraser was working on an old Solaris machine. I was working an entirely unrelated customer issue at the other end of the room. I was unsure that what I was doing was the right thing. Fearful of making a mistake, of looking foolish in front of my peers and in front of the customer, I was visibly full of apprehension.

I remember walking up to him and saying, "Fraser, I know this is a stupid question, but....".

No sooner had I uttered the words, he interrupted me mid-sentence and said, "My friend, there are no such things as stupid questions, only stupid answers... How can I help you?".

He had only been in the business for a matter of months. We had barely worked together but his tone was that of someone who had known me for many years. He worked through the issue with me, confirmed that what I was doing was correct and said to let him know if I needed anything from him, I need only ask. He then returned to his work.

Before joining the business, Fraser had already enjoyed an entire career in the Canadian Air force. He knew and had experienced more in terms of leadership than many would in a lifetime!

Over the year or so that we worked together I heard Fraser say this phrase quite often. Some areas of the business were a tad unforgiving of what they deemed as 'stupid questions', often deriding those who asked them. I knew that there were those in the business that mocked Fraser when he used this phrase and that never felt right to me when I heard it. I knew how much I appreciated the time he gave to me, even when it wasn't even his job to do so... Fraser was well aware of the negativity he received but he never let it phase him.

It was not until nearly decade later and as my own leadership skills matured, that I fully appreciated what that one sentence did for someone in my position.

Those 18 words lifted an unsure team member out of his discomfort and insecurity, giving him the support and reassurance he desperately needed, specifically at the time he needed it. Helping him to not only gain confidence in the task that was expected of him, but also confidence in learning and applying those new skills to other tasks throughout his development.

In many ways Fraser taught me what would become one of the most valuable leadership skills that I have used throughout my entire career.

I now know that those who mocked him did so from their own insecurities. From their own lack of understanding as to what Fraser was consciously doing when he spoke those words.

Fraser knew that the root of my question was not necessarily a lack of understanding or me not being up to the task. The root of the question could have been any number of things... Perhaps it was the teaching method not being the best fit for me, perhaps I just needed some reassurance and confidence building, or indeed anything in between.

My question was not stupid. It was a call to action to a leader that someone needed kindness and guidance, not derision (often publicly)... A stupid answer would have come from someone who failed to see that!

Fraser wasn't being quaint. He was being a leader in those moments when leadership was needed.

What he likely has not known before reading this, is how much that lesson in leadership has positively impacted me throughout nearly 20 years of career and personal life. But not only me, almost everyone I have managed over the years. I can tell you that the vast majority have heard this phrase at some point!

For that, I for one thank him.

You have questions about how to better lead your teams?

Drop me a DM over on LinkedIn at Dan Holloway. Give my profile a follow and let's talk 😉

The link has been copied!