Ashley the intern had been looking forward to this intern breakfast (brunch? Luncheon? Snack? Did it matter as long as there was free food) since seeing it on the calendar at the beginning of the summer. To be fair, Ashley the intern looked forward to any intern activity that took her away from the project she had been assigned. In theory, her project sounded essential and innovative, but in reality, it was ill defined and vaguely unpleasant. Intern activities were a welcome distraction.
This particular activity was appealing because the CEO of the company was speaking to the interns and would be answering questions. Ashley had (perhaps foolishly) thought a question and answer session with a Fortune 500 oil company CEO could be a very interesting event. After the free food was 90% consumed, the Chief Executive Officer stood up and gave a short speech. It wasn’t particularly interesting. The CEO was a youngish (for such an important position) guy with “family values,” a nice looking suit, and a background in engineering (gag). After his speech (something about seizing opportunities at this opportune point in their lives), he opened the floor to questions.
Ashley squirmed straighter in her chair. This was the part that got interesting. A polite hesitation, and out of over one hundred interns, one raised his hand and asked, “You do such a great job at balancing work, family and social commitments. Can you give us advice at the beginning of our careers on how to have balance like you?”
Ashley wasn’t sure if her mouth actually fell open, or if it was just a mental image. What a ridiculous question. She didn’t know the intern that asked it. A law intern maybe. Or business. Engineering? Not a science intern like her. She knew all of the science interns. They were sitting at her table.
The CEO smiled, and answered the question. Next question. “The recent stock split was a savvy move, and last quarter’s profits exceeded expectations. How are you managing to run things so smoothly in the variable environment of the energy industry?”
Another bad question. Bad because it was brown nosing and BORING. Okay maybe the intern (obviously, a business intern) thought it was interesting, but Ashley was pretty sure he was just patting himself on the back for having asked something that had big words in it.
The next few questions were all along the same lines: “You are so awesome, tells us about it,” kind of things that made Ashley want to fall on the floor. There may have been some content based questions, but they were generic. You could ask them to anyone with a MBA and get just as good an answer.
Ashley looked around at the table of science interns. She had fully expected one (or more) of them to ask a question because they were like all interns the world over. By that I mean, they were all overly confident because they had been chosen for the internship. And they were friendly with each other, but with a distance born from the fact that they were competing for two or three jobs, and were not going to let you or anyone else get in the way of that job offer at the end of the summer. (Ashley felt absolutely foreign in this environment. She was the opposite of overly confident, and wasn’t even sure she wanted the job offer.)
Asking a question would be a great opportunity to show what a stellar and intelligent employee you could be. Hence the humble-brag questions of the other interns. Ashley assumed that her friendly, cut-throat fellow science interns would be just a excited to jump at this opportunity as the business, law, etc. interns that filled the other tables around the room. Only the science interns were silent. (Okay, not 100% silent. They were occasionally whispering to each other between attentive expressions they were sending the CEO’s way.)
Ashley watched the interns. She watched the CEO. She decided that she didn’t have anything to lose. Someone needed to ask something real. It’s an oil company for heaven’s sake! It’s like the villain of the business world, and that’s really saying something. So, Ashley—who would later be described as someone who didn’t ask enough questions—raised her hand.
The CEO pointed to her. “So,” she said, starting with a story, because a question is useless without context, “Every week I talk to my dad on the phone. And every week he asks, ‘How’s the big, bad oil company?’”
The room burst into laughter. Even the CEO laughed. Ashley hadn’t necessarily meant to be funny, but this gave her courage to continue (and inflated her view of her own sense of humor). “My question is, what would you say to my dad and anyone else who thinks of you as the CEO of a ‘big bad oil company’?”
The CEO smiled. He gave an intelligent answer. He talked about how their company gave back to the communities they worked with. He talked about job creation and carbon sequestration. He talked about the way oil and gas availability can increase the standard of living in developing countries. He convinced Ashley (who had been on the fence) and everyone else in the room (who were not on the fence, they were working for an oil company after all) that oil companies were not bad guys.
Ashley didn’t bother to look back at the other science interns. Nor did she look at the intern advisors in attendance, whose job it would be to decide which of them would receive the coveted job offers. She simply savored the moment she had asked a question that no one else would, and gotten an answer that mattered. That CEO guy wasn’t so bad, even if he was once an engineer.
Ashley didn’t get the job at the end of the summer. To be fair, she told them that she was moving to Idaho where her fiancé was already employed. At this news they probably thought, Idaho? (There is no oil in Idaho, and most people assume there isn’t much else either.) But they said very friendly things and ensured her that they loved her and if she ever needed anything…
Ashley knew this was just lip service. She had made their jobs easier by taking herself out of the running. Now they had fewer egos to destroy. (Ashley’s ego was delicately balanced as it was. She didn’t need anyone to destroy it.) Although the whole fiancé in Idaho was perfectly true, it wasn’t the real reason she’d turned down a job before they could even offer it. She didn’t want the job. She was, after all, the daughter of an artist. Big oil companies (even if they weren’t bad) were not really her natural environment.
I wrote this (mostly) true story because I have been contemplating what exactly makes a question good. Once again, I have been presented with an opportunity to participate in a question and answer session, this time in a religious setting, and have found myself wondering if anyone will have the courage and the consideration to ask a good question. Will I? I may not be an expert at the topic, but I believe that once, I asked a CEO a really good question.