‘I wish I’d known the value of posing powerful questions early on’
Building a company is a difficult task. Whether starting their own or growing an established business, these leaders have made a name for themselves as some of the best of the best. So, what makes them tick and what are they aiming to achieve when all is said and done? We spoke to Chris Thomason, Founder of Ingenious Growth, about his journey in business.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your career and how have you overcome them?
I’ve never viewed a challenge as something negative that needs to be overcome, as I’ve always seen challenges as questions that you simply need a new answer to. Something intriguing that you want to resolve—like a difficult puzzle.
In life, we face many questions, and often, known answers work well enough for current questions. However, the skill comes in recognising when there’s a new question that needs a different type of answer—or when that new question is too challenging to answer in one bite and so needs to be broken down into components, where each of those elements needs to be addressed differently. Once the challenging question is answered, how you apply your capabilities to address that issue is usually straightforward.
There’s a specific skill with answering any question—and that’s not to stop at your first answer. It’s about finding several answers, and then assessing the best that resolves your challenge. It’s the quality of our thinking that helps us to answer those questions.
So, I haven’t faced any major challenges in my life. Just questions of a personal or business matter that I needed fresh thinking to get ideas or answers on.
Is there anything you wish you knew before you first started out?
I wish I’d known the value of posing powerful questions early on. As an example, the first business I bought was a manufacturing company that used composite materials. The raw materials we used were very expensive to buy, but they were classified as hazardous materials, which meant the unused surplus was costly to dispose of.
One day, I’d invited someone from a related industry, but not a direct competitor, to meet with them and share ideas. I asked him where they disposed of their waste raw materials—but he said they didn’t have any waste raw materials. And when he told me what they did, an hour later, we didn’t have any waste materials either.
That’s when I realized I was asking the wrong question. Rather than asking about where to dispose of unused raw materials, I should have been asking how not to have any unused raw materials. Clearly a much more valuable question to ask.
Did you always want to be a business leader or did the desire develop over time?
At one point in my life, I was a young and successful engineer working for a large engineering company, with a lot of responsibility—and thoroughly enjoying the work. However, one Saturday I started speculating on where I saw myself in five years’ time. So, I got a sizeable piece of paper and started writing things I could do—trying to position where my life might go in the future.
When I put all these things down, and crossed off the ones that didn’t really excite me, one item left was to do an MBA to understand more about how business works. I realized that would be something for the future, whether I was inside a large organization or running my own business—the kind of knowledge that would be of enduring value.
Two years after that moment, I’d completed my MBA. While not sure what to do next, I stumbled across some people I knew who were selling a manufacturing business. It was insolvent, but still operating—and it seemed interesting to me, as it was related to my skills. So I bought the company for a very good price and that was the moment I first led a business.
What is your top tip for other business leaders?
Killer Questions are those questions which were answered well, will make a significant difference to your business. By their very nature, they tend to be enduring in nature. Even when you answer it well and implement some of your answers—new answers to it will be needed in the future.
Your currently unused answers might have value in the future—which is always the case with what I term enduring questions. So, regularly pose enduring questions across all aspects of your business—especially where there’s potential for significant value to be generated if you answer it well.
But don’t be in a rush to answer them. In the Eisenhower matrix, the most valuable quadrant is the IMPORTANT / NOT URGENT quadrant, where you have time to think about your questions. We rarely spend enough time in that quadrant thinking about our issues—but this is where new value is created.
What are your plans for the future?
I’ve scaled up my thinking to answer one of the biggest issues we face—and that’s helping every individual on the planet do something meaningful to address climate change and sustainability.
I’ve observed the activists doing dramatic, but potentially negative acts to get news coverage. This is because they feel disempowered and frustrated and don’t know what else to do—so I’m putting a program together that enables any individual to make a material difference.
What would you like your legacy to be?
If the previous question is successful, then I’d like my legacy to be known as a person who engaged huge parts of humankind to become more committed and involved in sustainability and saving the climate.
What makes a great business leader?
I’m a designer by profession, and as such, I recognize that all talented designers need to possess a little bit of crazy in them. However, when you get a business leader who invokes a little bit of crazy when they talk about their vision—then that’s often an exciting and inspiring vision—yet one that has practicality and viability behind it.
This is what makes an inspiring (and so great) business leader. As Steve Jobs once said, “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones that do.”