Michael Feuer's columns

Column: The dumbest farmers grow the biggest potatoes

There’s an advantage being the mild-mannered farmer with that “aw shucks” persona in business. Michael Feuer explains what that is, and why it may just be the best role to play.

Early in my career, I worked for a CEO who was fond of pontificating about how one doesn’t need to always project an image of being the most brilliant, sophisticated businessperson and that this power image could actually be a detriment in certain circumstances. He would conclude his mini-sermon by flashing a smirk and reciting his favorite old German saying: “The dumbest farmers grow the biggest potatoes.” I was in my mid-20s in those days, and in hindsight, I most likely didn’t fully appreciate my boss’s words of wisdom because I had assumed the best tactic was never let them see you sweat, although under your outer layer you were consumed by fear and soaking wet.

Today, that farmer’s adage now rings true with me. I have seen executives over the years who, with an exaggerated sense of their own importance, have invariably put their foot in their mouths. These pundits, most always, come across as very slick, certainly articulate know-it-alls who are so impressed with themselves they frequently miss the forest from the trees. Another trait of these self-anointed moguls is that they are usually afraid to ask the questions for which they need answers because they don’t want to diminish their image and have those with whom they’re working or negotiating think they might not be perfect.

Not seeking the truth or failing to discover the underlying facts can, and often does, play into the hands of the “farmer type” my former mentor idolized. Instead of systematically working to flush out a concept that passes the important “smell tests” or probing to actually determine what works either economically or functionally, the high and mighty will simply wing it because they really think they are smarter than everyone else.

I love negotiating with these types because they never bother with the details, thinking, “who cares,” that will be handled by the “little people.” This fixation on image and sacrificing substance for form typically results in a lot of money being left on the table primarily because of blinding hubris.

Meanwhile, the mild-mannered farmer with that “aw shucks” persona, who is by no means average, gains the upper hand by asking many different questions and sometimes the same questions, using different words, and doing it more than once. Each inquiry produces a better understanding of the issues and opportunities and how to turn them to his or her favor. While this grunt work is going on, our boy- or girl-wonder is too busy hypothesizing and contemplating about this or that and is only available to hear him or herself speak.

At the end of the meeting, the too-slick-for-their-own-good, buttoned-up types with every hair in place, go off, normally without a clue that they’ve been had and that the enemy was really themselves.

The old TV cop show “Colombo” and its more modern-day version “Monk” are indicative of how to underwhelm the other side. These detectives on the surface seemingly unaware, a bit disheveled, somewhat babbling and incessantly asked the same question a zillion times in different ways until they get the needed answers to solve the mystery.

How can you use this low-key approach to outwit the competition? First, always do your homework. Give the opposition the benefit of the doubt by assuming they are very good at what they do, and don’t underestimate them. It’s better to be over prepared and overestimate an opponent’s abilities than find yourself on the short end of the discussion because you’ve failed to fully prepare. And, never ever be afraid to ask any questions. My view is the only dumb question is the one you never ask. So what if the other smart guys snicker at what they perceive as your sophomoric questions? Many times, shrewd businesspeople ask questions even though they know the answer just to learn if the other people in the room know their stuff. Finally, don’t be too quick to volunteer information. It’s much better to be a good listener and learn as you go, than to be a fast talker.

When you harvest your next crop, be sure you produce the biggest potatoes by knowing what you don’t know and being smart enough to understand how and when to ask the right questions. Doing this will produce an abundant yield more times than not.

Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax in 1988, starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money. During a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales of approximately $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in December 2003. Feuer serves on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and building entrepreneurial enterprises. Reach him with comments at [email protected].