Leading With The Right Questions

Have you ever noticed how many questions you ask in a typical day? Even the simplest decision can follow from dozens of questions? Most we ask and answer without even thinking about it? They reside just under our awareness in almost everything we do. Sometimes we don’t know what question to ask because we don’t know what we don’t know. Questions lead to answers and answers to outcomes.

So, if you want to improve your results, start with the questions you are asking. It doesn’t matter whether you are solving an individual problem, making a decision, leading a project team or executing on strategy, the outcomes that you see in front of you today answer the questions you have already asked. Change the questions and you begin to change the result.

Leading with the right questions requires a willingness to make your real questions transparent and then to follow the markers that enable you to refine and adjust them until they land the right outcome. Let’s look at the way questions affected the growth of this start-up company scenario.

In four years, Ben had taken his company from 2 people working at a kitchen table to 400 people with 25%+ profits. His business model had created explosive growth and was quickly recognized and emulated by others. No surprise here. Ben assumed that he could continuously innovate and reinvent his business processes ahead of the competition. Then he hit a wall. Growth stopped and profits softened.

He began asking questions: Do we have the right team? Ben knew that entrepreneurs often hit a wall at certain thresholds of growth so he seeded his executive team with people from larger companies who in turn asked: Do we have the most effective business processes? He engaged in business process redesign which resulted in more efficiency. How do we develop more esprit de corps and teamwork? He redesigned his company so that it was team-based, he trained people in teaming skills and engaged in teambuilding at all levels of the company with modest success. However, there was very uneven energy and enthusiasm – most of which was a carry-over from the initial explosive growth. Do we have work space that will enable us to continue to grow? He moved his company into newer, larger and more beautiful quarters. Do we have the right image? With the help of the marketing consultants, he changed the company name and logo.

He now had beautiful quarters, a polished image, efficient processes, staff that knew how to perform as a team (should they so choose) and a more focused strategy. Neither profits nor growth budged. Clearly, the results indicated that Ben had not landed the right question.

It doesn’t matter whether you are focused on strategy or simple decisions, when you don’t like the results you are getting, it is time to revisit your outcome question before you turn to questions about what it takes to get there. But how do you discover the flaws in your questions so that you can shape a new one? There are three markers that guide you to the right question. They can be summed up in the following words: pull, energy and flow and they apply at every level.

The first marker is pull. This is the attraction or influence you experience in response to something that matters to you. All questions create pull. The gripping corporate questions are those that have compelling values. These questions are squarely focused on big value to the customer or client … value that sets you apart with the customer and creates stretch for the organization. These questions profoundly resonate with what matters to everyone in the organization. You don’t have to talk them into it. They get why it matters. Great outcome questions are also inclusive. They rise above differences. They therefore, pull unity of purpose.

Look around you. Do the right, most important things matter? Do people “get it?” Are they unified and fired up? These are the indicators that your question has powerful pull.

The second marker is energy. An energized workplace is alive … crackling with ideas. A non-energized workplace is deadening. The difference is palpable. The greater the pull, the more it energizes and compels people to action. Look at the energy. Is high energy the norm or just the exception? Is it self- reinforcing or do you need a crisis to kick up the energy? Low or intermittent energy indicates that you haven’t landed the “right” outcome question.

The third marker is flow. Flow occurs when the pull of a great challenge is combined with the skill and expertise to make it happen. When a team is in flow they think, communicate and act almost as a single organism … with little or no resistance. Communication seems effortless and intuitive. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who performed the original landmark study on flow, observed that people often tap previously unrecognized, individual and collective resources when they are in flow. They find the experience deeply fulfilling … even memorable. When people experience flow, they long to repeat it.

Flow is the most subtle indicator of whether you have landed the primary question, because it also requires high individual and organizational competence. But look for high commitment and focus. Look for agreement on what matters and a high level of intensity about it. These indicate that your question is capable of creating flow.

Now let’s look at how pull, energy and flow worked for Ben. First, he lost track of what he was pulling. He needed to raise the bar with a big value question and instead he changed the subject to performance questions. His questions were all focused on organizational competence. That’s fine if you have landed the outcome question. But he had not. The most important requisite of pull, compelling values, had receded into the background. Rather than creating unity, his questions dispersed and dissipated energy. For this reason, in spite of his team-building efforts, the unity of purpose that creates flow never materialized … not even sporadically. Instead of kick starting a new round of profit and growth, he was running in place.

Ben could have asked a question that mattered to everyone and that would have pulled everyone onto the same page by raising the bar on value as Steve Jobs did when he returned to Apple. Performance and growth would have followed. Great value questions connect people to the customer or client. They are so compelling that they create their own success. They don’t need to be plastered on posters for everyone to know what they are. They are even self evident to the customer. You don’t have to own an Apple product to infer that their questions are about products that have simple, clean, eye-popping design and that bring the customers who use them to their own cutting edge. You may not find their questions on a poster, but you can bet that everyone at Apple gets it and that it pulls extraordinary performance.

A question about how to create extraordinary service that sets his company apart from the competition would have galvanized commitment and sharpened the focus for both Ben and the people in his company. He would have then been able to address issues of organizational competence with a new set of eyes. Powerful value questions pull people’s desire to efficiently find the right people, build solid relationships, build on each others’ ideas, use processes that follow efficient paths and develop work habits that are uncomplicated and lean.

These can be captured in five critical areas of proficiency: social networks, social capital, conversational competence, interactive processes and individual processes. Csikszentmihalyi stressed that flow only occurs in the presence of superior high competence at the task. For groups and organizations, that includes these five proficiencies. Rather than throwing the next best thing against the wall to see if it would stick, Ben would have been exploiting the pull of his big value question to drive the attainment of mastery required in each of these organizational competencies. He would have asked specific questions of each.

Social networks: Ben would have made sure that people knew how to discern and set in motion the optimal social networks pulled by his primary question. He would challenge people to ask: “If we had no constraints in the form of silos, bottlenecks, lines of authority or other limitations, who would we go to?”

Social Capital: Ben would have asked: “How do we continuously add to the bank account of mutual respect and trust that can sustain divergent, out- of-the box ideas?” The broader the thinking pulled by the outcome question, the greater the bank account of social capital required. The test of social capital is the diversity of ideas that can be sustained.

The Quality of Conversations: Big questions require out-of-the-box thinking. They move people to reach for and leverage their very best joint intellectual resources. Ben would have insisted that people ask: “Do our conversations produce shared meaning, discovery, new understanding and common ground?”

Interactive processes include not only the tools that are used to promote group consensus and effective decision-making but also the array of activities through which people engage in conversations. They add value to the extent that they create simple almost invisible paths of least resistance. So Ben would have used the intense pull of his big question to stimulate a corporate mantra: “Does this process add value or create waste?

Individual work and thinking processes are the foundation upon which people are able to collectively develop great ideas and move them forward. These processes include everything from how to structure time and organize work to how to attend to each subject without the bleed-through of distractions. They are the engine of contributions that are just-in-time and that represent the best thinking of each contributor. Ben would ask: “Do individual work and thinking processes enable people to step up?”

Ben’s job, at this point, would be to help people translate what is now only a predisposition into daily reality in the workplace. He would have encouraged people to trust their instincts, create fluid networks, insist on solid relationships and blow the whistle on silos and other barriers … and he would have backed them up. He would have insisted on the norm of making interactive and individual processes lean and simple.

He would have stayed riveted on the question: “Are we demonstrating the required mastery in each competency area to deliver on big value?” He would have then focused: training, coaching, facilitation, process redesign and support systems precisely where they were needed. He might have implemented some of the very initiatives that followed from his initial questions … but each would now have been driven by the measure of competence required to deliver on his big value outcome question. The scatter-shot approach would become a thing of the past.

He would have asked people to join him in paying attention not only to the results of their work but also to the way they worked together to achieve it … the quality of their flow. He would have helped them to recognize that flow is more than simply a marker for refining an outcome question. It is also a reliable barometer of the effectiveness of the people in his company at discerning and executing on the behaviors and attitudes being pulled by that question.

Once Ben leads with the right questions, he can count on a newly energized work force to leverage their very best knowledge, experience and wisdom to move him into a new phase of growth driven by innovation.

If you want to change your results, change the questions you are asking. Follow the markers. Let the pull of the big value question drive execution in the five competency areas.

These principles apply at any scale. They apply to individuals as well as organizations. Notice your outcomes. Pay attention to what you are asking for. Refine your questions using pull, energy and flow as personal markers. Discern the optimal form of each competency. Pull out all of the stops and you will make it happen.

Csikszentmihaly, Mihaly. Flow. New York, New York: Harper & Row, 1990.

3 Ways to Help Your Finance Team Add More Value

For your team to develop these abilities, it will take some time. They will need to be better politicians in the workplace,and master these three critical skills. Are you ready to learn how to do it? Let’s begin.

To get this started, let’s make an assumption. The assumption is that the finance team members you are targeting to “tell us why and drive it” have core financial analysis skills. They can put together a discounted cash flow, read and interpret financial statements, prepare financial models, and do “what if” analysis. They can access the necessary data, and run models to twist and cut it.

The skills of facilitation, teamwork, communication, and driving strategy are tougher to get your arms around. I call these the non-traditional finance skills. There are several ways to develop them. For me, the start came with my role as a cost accountant. I had the necessary mundane assignments of explaining different operations variances, but I was also very lucky. As a cost accountant, I was a new product development committee member. It’s where I learned the inner workings of Sales, Marketing, Operations, R&D, and Quality Assurance.

In this role, I was able to learn how things work, and develop a foundation of institutional knowledge required to understand why certain decisions are made. After I developed it, I focused on these 3 skills to get my seat at the table:

1. Understand the Business ModelTo get your seat at the table, you need to know and understand how the organization structure, purpose, products, services, customers, strategic partnerships, and supply chain come together to create and deliver value. Crunching numbers and sitting in your cube will help, but ultimately Finance leaders need to get their people out of their chairs. Whenever possible, your finance team members need to volunteer or “be volunteered” to work on cross functional projects that boost their business acumen. A few ways to get this done are to have them travel on sales calls, work in production, or complete job rotation assignments. Give your best and brightest people assignments that will stretch them well beyond their comfort zone.

2. Build and Sustain RelationshipsHave you ever been in this position? You’ve been asked to find out why the average selling price is down this month. So…you head over to marketing and sales and talk to the people in the know. They divulge something that makes you scratch your head. You go to a cross functional meeting, and the subject comes up. You repeat what you heard, and the sales and marketing team feels that you threw them under the bus. Nice work.

To become a valued team member, you have to help colleagues achieve. If they come to you with an idea, work with them to figure out a way to get it done. It’s easy to say no. An example that is commonly seen is when a sales person wants to close a large deal, but there are some credit terms that need to be worked through. If you follow the letter of the law, you just say no. However, if you come up with an idea on how they can get 80% of the way there instead of no, you now have that person’s trust. The help you gave will spread like wild fire through the sales department, and they will view you as a problem solver – not a stop sign. Your seat at the table has been reserved.

3. Communicate and Drive ChangeIn Accounting 101, they tell students to be barometers, not thermometers. OK, that’s fine. However, there is so much more. The barometer needs to tell the business leaders more than which direction they are headed. Leaders want to know why they are headed in a certain direction, what can be done to keep it that way or change it, and finally, whether or not it’s sustainable. Can someone provide this insightful analysis from cubicle land? Heck no. Finance people need to master skills 1 & 2. The third, communicating and driving change is actually a powerful reward for mastering the first two. You now have the ability to influence decisions, achieve consensus, and drive change across the business. Your toolbox is well stocked!

Developing these three competencies will earn Finance a seat at the table. It takes effort, skill, and sometimes a complete change of outlook. When it’s done well, Finance earns a respected and valued role in establishing strategy, and the responsibility for owning the results of the business.

How to Build Organizational Trust That Boosts the Bottom Line

The purpose of communicating with employees is to share information to influence behavior, drive engagement and achieve business goals. But what if employees distrust the source of that information–or the information itself? Unfortunately, that’s exactly what’s happening in today’s business world.

In fact, according to research from Watson Wyatt, only 39 percent of employees say they trust senior management, and a mere 45 percent say they have confidence in their management’s abilities.

As professional communicators, it’s up to us to start building trust in our organizations. While that trust must start on a personal level, there are also things we can–and should–be doing to help build trust at the organizational level.

Here are five strategies to help you do that.

1. Start sharing more information. Research from CHA, a U.K.-based consultancy, found that 90 percent of employees who are kept fully informed are motivated to deliver added value by staying with a company longer and working harder, while 80 percent of those who are kept in the dark are not. As communicators, it’s our job to encourage our executives to share information more frequently and more openly.

2. Do a trust-based communications audit. Take a look back at all communications with employees (or any stakeholder group for that matter) over the last six months. Include e-mails from top executives, intranet postings, newsletters and so on. Then evaluate those communications for their openness and honesty. Look at whether or not any commitments were made in those communications–and if those commitments were kept. Finally, determine if there was consistency in messaging across each platform. Is your organization speaking with one voice? Or are you sending mixed signals?

3. Conduct a trust-based risk assessment. When it comes to trust, it’s much more difficult to rebuild it than it is to maintain it. That’s why it’s so important to be proactive. Start by looking across your organization and pinpointing all of the touch points with your key stakeholder groups–employees and retirees, analysts and investors, media, customers and so on. Then identify the areas that are either (a) most vulnerable to a breach of trust or (b) would cause the most damage to your reputation if there was a breach of trust.

For example, an organization that has hundreds of customer service representatives taking calls 24-hours per day faces the risk that any one of those representatives could breach a customer’s trust at any moment. Just look at the damage that was caused to AOL when a customer (who also happened to be a blogger) recorded a call with one of the company’s customer service representatives when he tried to cancel his service. (If you haven’t already seen it, check out the video on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xmpDSBAh6RY)

When it comes to breaching an employee’s trust, the most risk is likely posed by his or her direct supervisor. Failure on the supervisor’s part to tell the truth or follow through on commitments could do irreparable damage to the trust he or she has established with that employee.

4. Create SOPs for any major risks. Once the highest threats for a potential breach of trust are identified, you need to develop a risk mitigation plan. In the situation above, for example, you might offer additional training to customer service representatives that includes an overview on how social media tools like YouTube and mySpace are making it all the more important to provide excellent service on each and every call. Or you may offer workshops for managers that help build their leadership skills with an emphasis on building and maintaining trust with their direct reports.

Even with a risk mitigation plan, however, you still need to be prepared for the inevitable breach of trust. But how quickly and effectively your organization responds can make all the difference in whether the hit to your reputation is a mere chip in the armor or a devastating blow.

5. Start a dialogue about trust with your executive team. Once you’ve conducted a communications audit, completed a risk assessment and developed a preliminary response plan, it’s time to start a dialogue with your executive team about the importance of building trust with all key stakeholder groups. There is a tremendous amount of research (including the 2008 Edelman Trust Barometer highlighted in this issue) that provides concrete evidence of the low trust epidemic and how it’s affecting (among other things) employee engagement, customer loyalty and financial performance.

(c) Bon Mot Communications 2008