vendredi 15 décembre 2006

questions leaders need to ask employees about the business

you’ve been considering asking questions of
yourself and your customers. Important work to be sure,
but as a leader, you also need to focus your attention on the
people you lead. Asking questions of them is the core of
this book.
The easiest and best place to focus your early questions
for your employees is around the business. It’s amazing how
many well-educated, fairly successful employees know a lot
about their area of responsibility and virtually nothing about
what goes on in the department down the hall. IT people
don’t understand the salespeoples’ challenges. Marketing types take
mental vacations when profit and loss statements are discussed. The
packer in the shipping department doesn’t even realize the company
has a research department.
One of my favorite questions to ask a new client is “Do you give
tours of your organization to outside groups?” When the answer
is yes, I follow it up with “Is that tour, in greater depth, part of
your new employee orientation program?” We’re not even going
Leaders, by their openness to
questioning, give followers the
confidence to pursue their
—Andrew Finlayson,
American author and journalist
to talk about the number of people who stare blankly at the men-
tion of an employee orientation program, but a yes to the second
question is fairly uncommon. That being the case, I can only
assume that there are many people working in organizations with-
out a clear understanding of the business they’re in. That feels
risky to me. What’s a leader to do? Asking the questions in this
chapter is a logical place to start.
You’ll ask these questions for two reasons. First, to understand
the depth (or shallowness) of the knowledge people have about your
organization as a whole. Second, to provide you with an opportu-
nity to impart knowledge, correct misinformation, and encourage
exploration—in other words, to adopt the role of teacher for a
while. Teaching, in the non-classroom sense, is a major part of a
leader’s job, and these questions will provide you with the opening
to play that role.
Caution: Teaching does not mean lecturing. Asking an employee
one of these questions, getting a vague or confused answer, and
proceeding to deliver an on-the-spot lecture in an authoritative
tone will not get you the results you desire. Teaching means think-
ing about and delivering the information that the student needs in
a way that will be meaningful to them. The answers to these ques-
tions may start a brief dialogue, a one-on-one walk through a
department with narration, or an invitation to a representative from
another department to a team meeting for an old-fashioned show-
and-tell. The purpose of these questions is to help you discover
what needs to happen next.
If this is your first real step into being a leader who asks ques-
tions, go back and read A Warning at the beginning of this book.
There are a few things you need to think about before you burst out
of your office looking for a poor unsuspecting employee to question.
That section will help you remember what they are.
13. How do we make money?
A simple question. “We sell things.” “We make things and sell
them.” “We publish books.” If you work in a retail or manufactur-
ing environment, those answers should be pretty obvious. What if
you provide a service? “We help people solve problems.” “We fix
things that break.” “We show movies.” Surface answers all. Printing
books, selling something, fixing someone’s equipment allows an
organization to present an invoice but does not ensure that anyone
makes any money.
Most people have never been taught how business works, a fact
that has fueled the Open-Book Management philosophy. In an arti-
cle in the June 1995 issue of Inc., John Case describes the three ele-
ments that make Open-Book Management different.
1. Every employee sees—and learns to understand—the com-
pany’s financials, along with all the other numbers that are
critical to tracking the business’s performance.
2. Employees learn that, whatever else they do, part of their
job is to move those numbers in the right direction.
3. Employees have a direct stake in the company’s success.
Employees in an Open-Book Management organization know
how their organization makes money. But, I can hear you saying,
“We’re not an Open-Book company and I don’t have the authority
to make us one. True. But you can do your homework by asking this
question of the members of your team, evaluating the responses, and
establishing a plan to help your team see the big picture when it comes to the bottom line.
This could be scary if it occurs to you that you don’t actually
know the answer to this question yourself. Don’t use that as an
excuse to not ask the question. Use it as a reason to ask it of some-
one who knows and learn from them.
14. How does your work contribute to our
Years ago I was a salesperson for a large insurance company. Sitting
in a client’s office (an unhappy client’s office) I asked to use the
phone to call the home office to get the answer to his very pointed
question. As I dialed our toll-free number, engaging in silent prayer
as I pushed each button, it occurred to me that I hadn’t ever used
the main toll-free number before. It was picked up on the third ring
and answered by a cheerful person who was chewing gum so loudly
I could almost see her jaw working. I was so glad I had dialed rather
than my client.
On the way back to my office, I envisioned the confrontation she
and I were going to have. I was going to tell her, in no uncertain
terms, how unprofessional her behavior was. Chewing gum into the
ears of the hundreds of callers she must talk to in a day—what was
she thinking? Since it was a thirty-mile drive back, I had time to
think through my initial plan and found it lacking. I needed to talk
to her leader. No one, it seemed to me, had helped her understand
the importance of her job. When she answered the phone, she rep-
resented the entire organization to the person on the other end of
the line. I was pretty certain that had never occurred to her. Her
leader had never asked her how she envisioned her contribution to
the success of the entire company.
As a leader, it is fundamental to your job that each person you
lead, whether they’re accountants or janitors, understands that
they play a crucial part in your organization’s success. If you don’t
know how to explain that, or worse, don’t believe that statement
is true, stop calling yourself a leader. It is the leader’s job to create the context in which each member of their team does their work.
You need to explain it in the beginning, watch for understanding
in the daily work, and reward it on a regular basis.
I talked to the receptionist’s leader about the gum chewing. His
blank-stare response helped me understand her behavior. I started
telling my clients to call in directly to my administrative assistant
when they needed to talk to someone in the company. She never
chewed gum. I asked her lots of questions—this one on her first day.
15. How could we save money?
Back to the money stuff. Well, one could argue that most of business
is about the money stuff, but asking about the money often gets you
to something more valuable. This question does that. Leaders ask
this question to investigate, challenge, and assign responsibility. They
use it to investigate the forgotten areas within their control but not
in their view, to challenge people to think for themselves, and to let
people know that they are expected to engage their brains on the job.
Look at it this way. Pretend you don’t do the grocery shopping
in your household. In fact, you very seldom even go into a grocery
store. The balance in your checking account is running lower than
usual, and you notice that the checks made out to the grocery store
represent a significant percentage of your monthly expenditures. So
you sit down and develop a strategy to lower your grocery cost and
present your plan to the family shopper for implementation. If you
had to guess, how’s that going to work for you?
Okay, try this approach. You catch the shopper as you walk
through the kitchen and say, “You’re spending way too much at the
grocery store. I expect to see smaller checks in the future.” And as
you walk out of the room you add, “By the way don’t let the qual-
ity of our meals suffer.” Is that better?
Please tell me you didn’t think that either of these approaches
would work well. Please tell me that, as you read the last two para-
graphs, you were shaking your head and grinning. Unfortunately, we
act that way at home way too often. This behavior (as expressed
about grocery shopping, punishment for children, and other areas
too numerous to mention) has far-reaching implications—ask any-
one you know who’s gone through a divorce. Don’t kid yourself. If
you do it at home, you do it at work.
The problem with this behavior (in case you’re not certain) is pre-
suming that you know better than the person closest to the issue
does. When you ask about saving the company money, you send a
message that you expect and value your employees’ expertise
because they’re the ones who do the work, day in and day out. Of
course, the reasoning goes, they have ideas and I want—no, need—
to hear them. The more you ask this question, the better the answers
you get will be.
16. How could you make your job more effective?
I don’t believe I’ve ever been asked this question. The closest I ever
got was on a performance review form that had Where do you see
yourself in five years? as the last question on the bottom of the last
page. Silly me, I took it seriously. I thought about the work I was
doing, the work I’d like to be doing, the problems and concerns
expressed by our customers and developed a mini job description
and envisioned myself in it. When my boss read it he said to me,
“You can’t want to want to do that.” I could have handled a “You
can’t do that,” answer, but I walked away from that performance
review muttering, “You can’t tell me what I want to do!”
What a different experience that would have been if he had only
said, “This is an interesting proposal. What made you think of it?”
I would have gladly shared the frustration—mine and my cus-
tomers’—that made my job difficult. There were things he could
have helped me do, right away, to become more effective and to
make our clients happier, without creating a new job description.
Questions are powerful, and this is a great one. Issues that appear
small from a leader’s vantage point can be enormous barriers from
the employee’s. The people on your team may know what needs to
happen to make their jobs more effective, but they may not know
how to make the change. Helping someone think through those
ideas and then, when appropriate, breaking down the barriers that
hinder implementation, is a leader’s job. But how can you break a
barrier if you don’t know it’s there?
Ask this question more than once and you’ll begin to see the
quality of the thinking and the depth of caring about outcomes your
people have. Working with them to eliminate the organizational barriers to trying these ideas will benefit you both.
17. What’s the most important thing you know
about our customers?
Every successful organization I’ve encountered, as a consultant or
as a consumer, is passionate about their customers. When people in
an organization hear their leaders at all levels talking about their
customers at all times, it’s easy for them to get the message that cus-
tomers are important.
But talking about customers isn’t enough. Ever notice how fast you
can mentally turn someone off when you decide that what they’re
talking about doesn’t apply to you? It’s amazing to me how many peo-
ple believe that if the words “customer service” aren’t in their job
description, customers aren’t their responsibility. I decided recently
that I wouldn’t return to a particular restaurant because of misleading
menu copy. The last complaint I heard about an e-business was over
their packaging materials. Menu copywriters and purchasers of pack-
aging materials are examples of people who may not realize that they
are responsible for customer relationships. Leaders who ask questions
about customers help people in all positions understand that learning
the needs and wants of customers is everyone’s job.
So, the questions you ask about customers direct, remind, and
encourage your people to get and stay curious about your customers.
The answers you get from your staff will provide a virtually unlim-
ited supply of information to act on. Answers to this question will
fall into four categories.
1. People will not be able to answer. Don’t panic. This response
tells you that you and your leadership team have some work
to do. Some people will need to be reminded that they have
a responsibility to understand their customers. Some people
will need to learn the concept of serving internal customers.
Some people will need help to see how their work links to the
work of others within the organization to ultimately serve
your external customers.
2. People’s answers will be wrong. Don’t get mad. This is a
perfect time for a follow-up question. What leads you to
believe this? would be a good possibility. People may have
been given incorrect information, may have jumped to a
conclusion from a single encounter, or may be relying on
old data. Helping people learn their customer responsibil-
ities and fostering continued dialogue can clear up this mis-
3. People’s answers will confirm things you already know.
Don’t get complacent. These responses, while comfortable,
need to be looked at carefully. Do you really know your cus-
tomers well or are you collectively operating on old data?
Funny how one question leads to another, isn’t it?
4. People’s answers will surprise you with insights you’ve
never had. Don’t be embarrassed. These are the most excit-
ing answers of all. Insights are a function of viewing the sta-
tus quo with new eyes. If you lead an organization filled
with people who consistently scan their environment, think
about what they see, and draw insightful conclusions…well, things hardly get better than that!
18. What’s something we could offer to our
The best time to ask this question is when you’re talking to a cus-
tomer. The next best time to ask this question is when you’re talk-
ing to someone on your team who regularly interacts with your
customers. This is a question designed to generate ideas—lots of
ideas from many sources. So your job with this question is to ask it
of as many people as you can, as often as you can.
The worst possible position to be in when it comes to ideas is to
have too few of them. That’s why the primary rule of brainstorm-
ing is to amass quantity, not force quality. Unfortunately, many peo-
ple forget this rule, ask for ideas, stifle the conversation by judging
each idea as soon as it’s mentioned, and then wonder why their peo-
ple just don’t brainstorm well. If you want to hear about ideas that
might make your customers happy, you need to generate lots of
ideas and consider them all—even the ones that are too costly, too
time-consuming, or too outrageous.
Creativity is messy. The best ideas never appear fully formed and
practical. They are often hidden inside an idea that is impractical and
silly. These best ideas need to be coaxed, nurtured, and defended.
Creating an environment that encourages creative thinking isn’t
always easy, but it’s usually fun.
19. Who do you see as our competition, and
what do you know about them?
The nature of my work requires that I spend a great deal of time
away from home. Time alone in hotel rooms provides fertile ground
for unusual questions to surface. One evening I got to wondering
how a hotel concierge learns about the places they recommend. So
I asked. I was amazed to discover that, for the most part, they are
expected to learn about shops, restaurants, and local attractions on
their own time with their own dollars. That got me thinking about
how organizations learn about their competition.
(If this apparent leap in subject is uncomfortable for you, get used
to it. Not because it is a fault of mine, but because it is a common
occurrence when you get serious about asking questions all the time.
One interesting question seems to fire brain activity that may appear
to be random but with close scrutiny is connected. My experience
has been that the effort to find the connection brings little insight,
so I’ve learned to ignore the leap and focus on the seemingly new
topic. I suggest you do the same.)
I can remember only one time in my corporate career when my
employer asked what I knew about our competition. As it happened,
I knew quite a lot about a new product that was being introduced
by one of our hottest competitors because one of my customers had
just gotten a bid from them and had given me a copy. I had read and
filed the information. I’m ashamed to admit that it had never
occurred to me that this might be important information for the
whole organization, and if I hadn’t been asked, it would have
remained buried in my file.
Employees are consumers before they are employees, and many
of them choose to do business with the organizations that vie for the
attention and the dollars of your customers. Or they know people
who regularly interact with your competition. How are you mining
the information they have?
Even more interesting, there is the possibility that your employ-
ees may have some insight that you don’t into who the competition
really is. I remember attending an American Booksellers Association
BookExpo in 1995 without hearing one bookstore owner mention I have to believe that many of them had heard about
the new company, but most seemed to dismiss it as a fad for the few.
They were focusing on the growth of the large bookstore chains, a
serious threat to be sure, but nothing compared to the impact of
Internet book buying.
I’m pretty confident that out there somewhere is an
like competitor for at least part of your business. Asking this ques-
tion might just give you the heads-up you need.
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It is a dangerous thing to assume what people know. Did that
thought cross your mind as you asked these questions? I’ve known
young business people with MBAs from top business schools, who
lacked what I considered to be a basic understanding of how their
organization worked. Leaders ask the questions in this chapter, not
to find out how much people don’t know, but to discover where they
need to focus their teaching.
Asking these questions and getting less than stellar answers isn’t
cause for depression, despair, and another cup of coffee with a col-
league drunk to the ain’t-it-awful-what-these-kids-don’t-know refrain.
Leaders take the answers to these questions as an energizing start-
It is a healthy thing now and
then to hang a question mark
on the things you have long
taken for granted.
—Bertrand Russell, English mathemati-
cian and philosopher
ing point for action. They are excited to develop a plan for their
team to get smarter about their work. They work their plan and ask
the questions again as a way to chart their plan’s success. They make
sure each new member of their team is brought into the organiza-
tion with the knowledge and tools necessary for them to be a full
participant right from the beginning.
How about you? Think these questions might work in your
world? You’ll never know till you ask.
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1. What question in Chapter 3 did you find most challenging? Why?
2. What other questions about the business did they make you
think of? 3. What basic business issues does your team need to learn about?
4. What is your plan for making sure that they learn these things?
5. What one thing do you most want to remember from this chapter?

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