One of the most important factors in understanding a person is the foundation for his or her “lens” on work and life. In other words, what makes you, “you?”

There are at least five building blocks to my personal foundation:

  1. Where I grew up—My father was a career Army officer, and we moved every two or three years. I lived on Army bases and two civilian communities. For three years, we lived in Germany and my parents traveled with us to “see the sites,” my mother reading the history to us from the front seat; my brothers and I tussling and bored in the back seat.
  2. Family— With two brothers and two parents as a nucleus, my “little” family was really important to me.
  3. Education—College was unquestioned in my family. And, the options were only in our home state of Indiana, so I chose IU and majored in Psychology with an outside field in business (intensive in Personnel). Secretly, I wished I had taken the time to drive across the country in a VW “bus,” but I never considered an alternative getting right to work. Since then, I’ve done lots of individual courses that added a set of tools or knowledge area to my capability.
  4. Key people—I have had wonderful mentors and colleagues, now wonderful clients and colleagues—I can’t name them all—but, if you ask I would share about a few. I have benefited from people who challenged me and encouraged me. My view of my potential was always less than how others saw me.
  5. Work experiences—I’ve had mostly very good bosses, and when that wasn’t the case I have worked quickly to get into a new role to have a better boss. I began work as an HR professional in compensation, writing job descriptions and evaluating jobs. I started my first consulting practice when I was 27 and the second one when I was 47—I had never thought of myself as courageous, but now I do. I worked at Sibson & Company, as the Head of HR and then as a consultant—I learned most of what I know about business strategy, organization, and performance cultures there. My time at Sibson also sparked a style of developing frameworks and tools that persists in my consulting practice today. If we had time, I could tell you about my biggest failures and biggest successes.

Those facts and thoughts are just the tip of the iceberg. I have left out most of the specifics. And, I have held back some key things because no one is completely transparent, including me. But, if you know this much about me and have seen me in action, you could begin to muse about why I think and behave the way I do. You could more productively wonder about what is important to me.

How do you get to know someone without seeming invasive?

People often raise a concern that the person they want to understand will feel they are prying into their lives. But, think about the last work gathering or party you attended. Do many people ask you questions about you? No, not very many is my experience. They talk about themselves, their work, their kids, their cars, etc. Trust me, if you ask  with honest interest, you will be surprised what people will share (or not).

As an aside, I have a very smart friend who is a elementary school teacher. She knows a lot. More importantly, she has the talent to talk with anyone and ask virtually any question. A great skill that makes her interesting and fun in any gathering!

How do you get started?

First, if someone is important to your work, you should have already printed off their LinkedIn profile (and linked-in with them). Maybe you have access to their resume or CV. Google them if you know they are published.

And then, use the casual opportunities before meetings, lunch or team dinners, or even as part of a one-on-one meeting. You can ask one of these sample questions or pose a topic:

  1. I know you made a career transition to this industry in the last few years. What made you take that leap (or make that decision)?
  2. As we start this project, I would be very interested in other projects you’ve worked on and lessons you’ve learned.
  3. (In a social setting) I’m curious, where did you grow up? What was living (on a farm, in London, etc.) like?
  4. You’ve been a great support to me (or, you’ve been very successful here). Who have been your most meaningful mentors or colleagues from a learning perspective?
  5. You’ve been in the field or company now for X years. How have you seen it change for the better? Worse?

Your objective is not to duplicate their resume, but to gather a richer set of stories and information that will help you understand the person better.

Now just for fun, think of someone who you believe you know really well. Maybe even your significant other or child or sibling or parent. Go ask him or her a variation on one of these questions and see what you learn.