In 2005 Chief Learning Officer profiled Qualcomm’s chief learning officer, Tamar Elkeles, discussing her experience teaching an already very educated group of engineers in a unique culture setting. In the years that followed that story, Qualcomm grew to be a multibillion-dollar entity responsible for much of the mobile technology used daily by tablet and smartphone owners.
But rapid growth of a company can hinder developmental growth for its employees. “It’s important to clear the fog and look back to the roots of what made us successful. Yes, our technology leads our industry. But, it’s the spirit behind that technology that got us here,” Elkeles said in an interview with Forbes.
That’s why Qualcomm’s employees each have a “Yes!” button now that resembles the trademark red Staples button. Instead of shouting out “That was easy!” it emits different Qualcomm executives exclaiming “Yes!” in fervent ways.
The buttons provide encouragement for creative thinking, which Elkeles said allows engineers to approach problems with renewed optimism. That new outlook not only boosts their performance as a team — it also increases their openness to learning.
When I was a third-grader at St. Mary’s Catholic School in West Chicago, Illinois, the now-disappearing art of cursive handwriting was mandatory curriculum. I’m not afraid to say that I had some of the best penmanship in our class, almost matching our teacher’s mature loops and curves with my own.
But Mrs. Kohout gave me a failing grade.
As good as my handwriting looked, the way I held the pen was atrocious — shoved between my ring finger and middle finger in a fist that looked like it belonged more to a “Fight Club” participant in the heat of battle than a young Mary Shelley penning her first drafts of “Frankenstein.” Mrs. Kohout tried everything: giving me specialized pen grips, physically wrapping my hand around the pencil, even giving me a “Needs considerable improvement” on my report card to get me — an 8-year-old perfectionist — to try harder.
None of it worked. To this day, I hold the pen like a kindergartner holds a crayon.
Reading about Qualcomm and Elkeles’ new initiative to restore a “Yes!” mentality in employees got me thinking about whether my failure to grasp how to hold the pen correctly (pun intended) was because of my own stubbornness or my teacher’s reform methods. I’ve come to the conclusion that it was a combination of both.
Mrs. Kohout approached the problem by saying, “No, you can’t hold the pen that way.” In fact, I was holding the pen that way and performing pretty well, to boot. She might have had more success if she had adopted a more positive thinking method of, “Yes, you can hold the pen that way, but there’s an even better way to do it.”
That might have changed my mindset from, “I write just fine, so why do I have to change?” to “I can do even better if I work at changing this one thing, so let’s do it!” Maybe today I wouldn’t get the same curious remarks from colleagues and friends about why I hold the pen weird, have I always held the pen weird, does it hurt to hold the pen weird? Maybe my handwriting would still have deteriorated to a hybrid of cursive and print that’s typical for someone who switched from the pen to the keyboard halfway through her education. Maybe leaning toward positive thinking would have resulted in a more successful learning experience.
But that’s Elkeles’ goal: to get her organization back in the mindset of improving their skills by open-mindedness and inserting the word “Yes!” into their vocabulary. Who knows — maybe it’ll work. Or maybe they’ll just go back to holding the pen the wrong way because, hey, they’re doing just fine.