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.

Social Capital Is Value Which Your Business May Be Missing

“People who like what they do, do it better”. This is what Henry Engelhardt had as his philosophy when he started Admiral Insurance in 1993. He wanted to enjoy work. He recognised that if his staff were happy and enjoyed work too, there would be better productivity, so he set to work with a company philosophy putting happy staff at the centre of his business model.

One initiative to promote this philosophy is to have a business team called the Ministry of Fun, a team dedicated to organising weekly social activities for staff, such as come to work in fancy dress days, such as Superhero Day, nights out, or computer game tournaments in lunch breaks.

For 14 years in a row, Admiral Insurance has been in the 100 Best Places to Work in the UK. The business has grown to a $5.6billion valuation, is in the UK’s FTSE 100 stocks and has 7000 staff across Europe and India.

ARE YOU MISSING OUT ON SOCIAL CAPITAL?
Venture capital, human capital, financial capital, leveraging, share offerings are all sources of value that are utilised in business. And, yet, businesses can still miss out on a key source of capital to help them grow – Social Capital!

The Admiral Insurance story is one of a deliberate culture setting out to build and use strong Social Capital.

Work is, and always has been, one of the most defining aspects of our lives. It might be where we meet people, excite ourselves and feel at our most creative and innovative. It could also be where we can feel our most frustrated, exasperated and taken for granted.

With the average worker now spending over 90,000 hours at work in a lifetime, the workplace has become a “centre of meaning, membership, and mutual support “, and of friendship. Indeed, many people count some work colleagues as good friends.

Work organisations are inherently social. Many organisations depend upon the goodwill of staff members, and on their cooperation with customers and each other, to achieve the goals and mission of the business. The 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer shows that the trust of the majority cannot be taken for granted.

Failure to acknowledge Social Capital and to build an environment to cultivate it may mean that your business is missing out on this vital form of capital and the opportunity to advance to the next level.

WHAT IS SOCIAL CAPITAL?
Social Capital is the sum of goodwill and potential resources available to individuals and groups stemming from their networks of relationships.

When the members of networks have established some level of knowledge and trust, it brings them to a level of commitment to each other and a desire to exchange resources with each other, and this provides a context in which innovation can flourish. People have the desire to do things for and with others within their social networks. People tend to do things to help and encourage those in their same social network, creating a cycle of mutually beneficial reciprocity.

Like monetary capital, Social Capital has some value. It can be accumulated, invested and exploited, through deposits and withdrawals. The Ministry of Fun initiatives at Admiral Insurance are examples of ‘building deposits’ of Social Capital with the staff.

The outcomes of Social Capital are:
• Exchange and Reciprocity – “I’ll scratch your back, because I can trust you to scratch mine, when I need it”
• Good spirits
• Follow through – a willingness to go the extra mile with those in your network
• Trust overcoming uncertainty – it is far easier to come to an agreement with someone with whom you have a positive connection than with a stranger. There is a banking adage that says, “A relationship is worth one basis point”.
• Team Identity, even ‘team pride’

The ‘value’ of Social Capital can be seen by imagining a workplace where Social Capital was missing, one where:
• competition trumped cooperation
• there was little trust, with too much suspicion, whispering and cynicism
• there was little willingness to:
o share information, or to share it in a timely manner
o share resources
o assist each other
• business units stay stovepiped within their silos

HOW IS SOCIAL CAPITAL DIFFERENT FROM HUMAN CAPITAL?
Social Capital differs from Human Capital (as in HCM). Human capital may be said to be focussed on the education, experience and abilities of an employee for a particular role or pathway. It is a main focus of HR and managers, who are trying to hire, develop, performance-manage, promote and retain their talent pool. There may be some overlap between Human and Social Capital depending on how a business’s culture, employee engagement and wellbeing are defined. Many businesses choose to invest in the happiness and well-being of their employees because this investment indirectly benefits the bottom line by cultivating a happier, more energetic workforce.

IS SOCIAL CAPITAL THE SAME AS EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE?
When Billy Aydlett became the 7th principal in 6 years at Leataata Floyd Elementary, a school with a long history of dysfunction in a low-income part of Sacramento USA, he quickly discovered that the young students were not going to be able to make progress on the academics until they had gotten help with their social and emotional issues.

However, although Aydlett had risen through teaching ranks to become principal, he was a socially awkward man who confessed to being “awful” at ordinary human encounters, so he attended social-emotional training. Since beginning the emotional-literacy work, Aydlett said he had become more aware of interpersonal dynamics, and even made going on a vacation with his wife a priority – something he had never bothered to do before. (“I didn’t see the point in that kind of connectedness,” he admitted. “But I’ve learned that it’s important.”)

Emotional Intelligence is the ability to recognise emotions in oneself and in others, to be able to harness and manage them. They are the individual skills that are used by each person to build his or her Social Capital within work or other networks.

The experience of Mr Aydlett shows that building social connections does not come naturally for many people, even successful ones!

Deliberate action needs to be undertaken to foster Social Capital across the staff in a business. Some may be able to make flourishing connections naturally, for example “She’s a ‘people-person'”, but many are not able to do it on their own.

HOW IS SOCIAL CAPITAL OBTAINED?
Social Capital is built by the types and frequency of social interactions. Staff need fresh, shared experiences and face-to-face interactions to keep Social Capital flourishing.

Attending an event together gives a shared experience, which creates their own unique narrative/stories amongst attendees.

“Do you remember when we went xxxing? Wasn’t it great!? Wasn’t it funny when yyy completely messed up? And wasn’t zzz surprising in how she blitzed it!?”

This helps develop ties and bonds, and begins trust between participants.

Team building events can be very useful. If you have met someone from the business at an event, the ice is broken. The next time that you meet them, you are further along the path than with a stranger and better positioned to ask for a favour.

Most team building falls flat because it is a one-time activity, done and then forgotten. The challenge is to keep creating opportunities for people to connect and interact in meaningful ways, outside of regular meetings or training.

BENEFITS OF SOCIAL CAPITAL
Social Capital offers advantage to businesses iv. Here is a listing of the kinds of effects achievable through deliberately helping staff to build Social Capital.

RESOURCE SHARING
Team members have more certainty about how their peers will respond to requests for help. They can drive at unique solutions due to more certainty of a favourable response.

The resources available to individuals via his or her social networks within a business or industry are very wide ranging. The type of resources that someone else could provide include:
• Offering to use their influence,
• Providing their time,
• Accessing some of their budget dollars,
• Providing advice,
• Connecting an idea with the right person,
• Offering support,
• Giving (privileged) information,
• Sharing space and tools,
• Releasing a worker to join a project team,
• Providing an introduction to the right person,
• Giving a testimonial concerning another’s abilities,
• Smoothing access to higher echelons, sponsors or approving bodies,
• Gaining opportunities for advancement and development, or
• Simply rolling up their sleeves to pitch in when a deadline looms.

INNOVATION
Those who define Social Capital claim that it can influence innovation. How so?

It can provide an excited environment full of positivity, collaboration and willingness. It can also provide ‘casual collisions’, whereby unexpected encounters may connect diverse ideas. Roman Philosopher Seneca defined luck as what happens when preparation meets opportunity. Sports commentators can be heard to regularly say that great teams or sports people ‘create their own luck’, which probably means that they show a mixture of being more polished, less clumsy, displaying a commanding, professional presence and competence.

IMPACTING EMPLOYEE ENGAGEMENT
For the last 5 years, the Gallup organisation has found that the percentage of US employees who are unengaged has remained steady at 70%. This is despite concerted efforts by executives in those years to drive engagement higher than 30% in business.

Gallup defines an engaged employee as, “[They] are involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work. Gallup’s extensive research shows that employee engagement is strongly connected to business outcomes essential to an organization’s financial success, such as productivity, profitability and customer engagement. Engaged employees drive the innovation, growth and revenue that their companies need.”

Using this definition, we can surmise that 70% unengaged employees have low involvement, low enthusiasm and low commitment to the business and its profitability, and this effects its bottom line.

Clearly, something needs to be done about increasing staff engagement and involvement, and one way to impact this is have an active Social Capital building, through events, training and team building/team bonding activities.

HEALTH IMPACTS
Social Capital can also impact employee health, with positive benefits for those who have Social Capital and negative risks for those low in it or without it.

A 5 year study of 65,000 Finnish Public Servants ending in 2005 showed that men with low Social Capital had a 40-60% higher risk of chronic hypertension (high blood pressure) compared to their peer males who had high Social Capital. They also had risks of an unhealthy lifestyle involving alcohol and obesity.

Interestingly, no association between workplace Social Capital and hypertension was found for women. Is this because of the natural inclination of women to socialise?

LEARNING
It turns out that happiness and learning are tied very closely together. Trying new things with your staff can generate good vibes among employees, which in turn benefits the business itself.

Positive or happy experiences activate the learning process. The ideal state of learning is called flow, when you lose yourself entirely in an activity. Flow happens when you’re so engaged in what you’re doing, that you lose track of time.

These are merely a sample of the positive outcomes available to business managers who choose to provide a positive culture and deliberately assist all staff to build Social Capital. Staff will call upon colleagues to gain access to resources that they would not otherwise have… and then reciprocate.

THE CHANGING NATURE OF WORK
In the past, we commuted to a workplace, committed to a single/or a few employers, knew work colleagues well for years and disconnected from work when we went home. Success was achieved via isolated effort through personal drive, ambition and competition.

According to Seth Godin (blogging and marketing genius), the old paradigm of a commute to rows of cubicles, with meetings behind closed doors, is all too expensive and slow. There is going to be a huge focus on finding the essential people and outsourcing the rest. It will be a high-stress, high-speed, high-flexibility way of working, with your efforts auctioned off to the lowest bidder.

Futurists predict that billions will be connected by mobile services in the cloud, working flexibly, surrounded by digital bots, assistants and learning machines. Success will be achieved through the combination of mastery, to stand out from the ‘crowd’, and connectivity, leveraging what the ‘crowd’ brings. Therefore, having a deliberate strategy to build Social Capital is a strong means of growing and leveraging connections.

The Deloitte Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship says that in a future increasingly defined by innovation (the capacity to combine and connect know-how), both competencies and networks will be key. It’s in this synthesis from the diverse members of the network that real innovative possibilities lie. So, whom you choose to connect with, and to whom they are connected, will be one of the defining aspects of future working life.

Workplace management, says Godin, will mean managing a tribe, creating a movement and operating in teams, sometimes in person, often online, dispersed throughout global time zones. Therefore, leaders will have to find new ways to help everyone feel like they ‘belong’.

SUMMARY
Social Capital will not disappear along with your dedicated workstation, but it will be ever evolving.

For some, building and using Social Capital is natural, but for many it is not. Deliberate interventions, such as team building activities, need to be undertaken… and repeated.

Consider these questions too. What happens to the networks when someone leaves the business? And, similarly, how does a new hire develop any relationships or break into existing networks?

Choosing regular activities that are unique and slightly outside of people’s comfort zones can encourage them to gel together for the first time or in new ways, building connections from which they can draw resources – Social Capital!

What are you going to do to build and leverage Social Capital in your business?

What’s Your Magic Number?

The most successful businesses — and certainly, sales departments — have identified their Key Performance Indicators (KPI); individual gateways that directly effect the outcome of a particular process. Then they measure the competency ratios in line with them.

Have you identified the KPIs in your sales process?

A good KPI example in the sales process might be how many times you advance the first sales appointment to the next phase, whether that’s a demonstration, a site visit, a survey or a proposal. Another KPI is how many times you gain a new customer once the first gateway is passed. And when you do gain a new customer, what’s the average revenue you achieve? That’s certainly an important KPI. Because if your average revenue per sale is 40% less than the average peer KPI, you might want to find out why and take focused action to improve it, as you’re leaving money on the table.

And what about the length of a sales cycle in days? Is that conditional or do you have a degree of control over it? If you have a team member that has an average sales cycle 30% shorter than the peer group, uncover and assimilate those best practices out to the rest of the sales team. Less time, more results. That makes ‘Sales Cycle’ a valuable KPI.

On a practical level, KPIs can provide management prospect reactions to their service offering for feedback to marketing and product development, detect problem areas in sales performance and signal the need for strategic or tactical modifications — even an all-out intervention through pinpoint sales performance training.

Perhaps the most overlooked KPI is the individual ‘Magic number’; how many new weekly sales opportunities must be generated based on neighboring KPI’s. Think of the magic number as the fuel in your gas tank needed to get from point A to point B. It’s directly proportional to how far a distance, how fast you drive and your average miles per gallon. Your sales process ‘Magic number’ is a derivative of your average revenue per sale, 1st appointment to proposal ratio, closing ratio and revenue goal. It’s your ‘Activity barometer’ and it should be at 100%.

The following are some tips for improving several sales process KPI’s.

If your current 1st Appointment to Proposal ratio is below 65%:

1. Internally define what your ‘Next step’ objective of the 1st appointment is; a demo, a site visit, a survey or a proposal. Then train to a process and measure the outcome.

2. Decide to start at the ‘Top’ with the fiscal authority that can ‘Call the shots’.

3. Avoid ‘Selling’ your product on the 1st appointment. Instead, outline your diagnostic steps to evaluate the fit between your solutions parallel to their business objectives.

If your current Closing ratio is below 65%:

1. Ask pertinent questions to what the Prospect Company’s decision-making process is, what the internal criteria for change is and what players need to be involved for evaluation.

2. Communicate a timeline and set a specific date for the 2nd appointment before leaving the 1st appointment. Encourage that all management players be present at the next appointment.

3. Catalog risk factors for each management player and develop strategies, tactics, and tools for direct communication to them.

4. Have relevant industry and title reference letters available for ‘Real-time’ credibility.

If your current ‘Activity barometer’ is below 100%:

1. Announce the Competency of converting conversations to appointments as a Key performance Indicator for sales success.

2. Define an appointment setting training objective and set a realistic goal.

3. Develop a training process in line with prospecting scenarios and best practice communications.

4. Don’t sell your ‘Widget’; sell the Business reason to meet.

5. Partner with technology to transfer best prospecting practices into ‘Intellectual capital’ promotion throughout your sales society.

Ultimately, sales trainers and management should work in concert to create a new culture by replacing random sales routines with specific KPI competency training.

Targeted and timely KPI training can make a critical difference to your monthly revenue scorecard. In today’s high sales performance culture migrate away from monthly and quarterly ‘Quota’ focus to daily routines and weekly goals. The opportunity rests squarely on switching paradigms from the required ‘End result’ to the necessary steps (KPIs) to get there routinely. Then build supporting tools for learning and application.

And don’t forget your ‘Magic Number’.