By Chuck Violand

May 11, 2015

Dr. Ernesto Sirolli is a world-renowned expert in economic development and the founder of the Sirolli Institute. At the tender age of 21, Sirolli was working for an Italian NGO (Non-Government Organization), attempting to show people in southern Zambia how to successfully grow tomatoes—or so he thought.

After the tomatoes had grown ripe, Sirolli confidently remarked to the Zambians how easy it was to grow them. Then, overnight, a group of hippos emerged from the river and ate all the tomatoes. As he was shouting his frustration at what the hippos had done, the Zambians explained, “That’s why we have no agriculture here.” When he asked why they hadn’t told him about this before, they replied, “You never asked.”

Dr. Sirolli learned a valuable lesson from the Zambians that could benefit a lot of business owners: don’t assume you have all the answers. Sometimes the best way to help people is to shut up and listen—whether you’re working for a NGO or running a business.

Talking a lot, giving instructions, and shouting orders comes easily to a lot of entrepreneurs. After all, many of us started our businesses because we didn’t do well taking orders from someone else. We prefer giving the orders—the more often, the better. And sometimes giving orders becomes a habit that we grow to enjoy.

Over time, we lose our sensitivity for asking questions with long-standing employees or even business partners. We figure either we’ve already discussed everything we could possibly want to know, or we don’t really want to hear what they have to say.

As time passes and our businesses prosper, some of us continue to think that giving orders is an integral part of our success—we talk, people listen, the business grows. We can get pretty comfortable thinking we’re the smartest guys in the room. But, if we continue to do all the talking, our businesses are going to stall.

It’s when we surround ourselves with people who are smarter than we are and develop the wisdom to ask questions rather than just spout orders that our businesses continue to grow and we can grow along with them. When we are asking the right questions and have created an environment where our people feel safe enough to challenge us and explore new ideas, we can grow businesses, or tomatoes, that aren’t dependent on us giving all the orders.

These “smarter than ourselves” people reside at every level of our organizations, from front-line producers to supervisors to managers and business partners. Even workers who are doing the work we once did know different things about the work, just like the Zambians. Both the Zambians and Dr. Sirolli knew how to grow tomatoes. What Sirolli didn’t know about, that might have altered his advice, were the hippos!

As business owners, we’d all do well if we learned to ask more and talk less. After all, none of us wants to get blindsided by a bunch of hippos coming out of the river at night to eat all our tomatoes!