vendredi 15 décembre 2006

questions to ask in special situations

get days filled with business as usual. A
leader’s day often consists of a string of unique situations that
they are expected to handle. What better way to prepare for
these special situations than to think about the questions you
might want to have ready when any of these common leader-
ship interactions happen? I’ve defined four Special Situations
when having questions at the ready will be a real benefit.
One of the best parts
of a leader’s job is to welcome new employees to
their team. My assumption is that your organization has a
formal orientation program for your new hires. (If it
doesn’t, you’re the one who brings up the need for such a
session at every opportunity, aren’t you?) The questions in
this section are about the time you personally devote to wel-
coming someone new to your team. Nothing will have a
It is better to debate a question
without settling it than to settle
a question without debating it.
—Joseph Joubert,
French essayist and moralist
greater impact on a new hire than that first, personal inter-
action with their new boss. Use the questions in this section
as a way to start an interesting dialogue with the new mem-
bers of your team.
In most
organizations, leaders participate in some form of coaching
and mentoring sessions for the people on their team and
possibly for people on other teams. These programs can
range from formal systems to informal, spontaneous hall-
way conversations. Leaders are assigned or sought out.
Leaders who take this role seriously (my bias is that if you
call yourself a leader, you do) will find the questions in this
section helpful.
One of your key
responsibilities as a leader will be to identify, nurture, and

they can be considered and promoted to leadership posi-
tions can be a source of great pride. The questions in this
section will help your new leaders build their confidence
and see their roles as leaders from a fresh perspective.
Taking the time to ask these questions will be a meaningful
investment in the future of your organization.
It would be nice to believe that
you could be a leader and never have to deal with a serious
crisis. Nice to believe, but probably unrealistic. Thinking
about your responsibilities before a crisis is infinitely better
than trying to determine them during the crisis. The ques-
tions in this section will help you if and when a crisis hits
your team or organization.
Your willingness to take the time and find the places to use the
questions in this chapter says a lot about your personal commitment
to leadership. Other questions in this book may stretch your courage
when you ask them, may be just plain tough to ask, or may challenge
the status quo of your organization. The questions in this chapter
will be helpful to ask and need to be part of your stock-in-trade.

35. Why did you decide to join our firm...really?
Remember the last time you took a new job with a new employer?
The reasons that brought you to that decision were undoubtedly
many and complex. Did anyone ever ask you why? Probably not.
Why don’t you do something different and start asking new hires
why they decided to join your company?
Asking this question will provide you with insights on several lev-
els. You’ll learn about your organization’s reputation in the industry.
You might gain insight into your organization’s relative position
on salaries and benefits. You might learn something about your
reputation as a leader. You’ll gain insight into your new hire’s decision-
making process. You can gauge their reaction when asked an unex-
pected question. Lots of good information, don’t you think?
This is a great place to reiterate the value of silence when asking a
challenging question. Years ago, when I was in sales, I learned a valu-
able technique. It was presented as a sales technique, but I’ve learned
that it works in many different situations for many different people
including salespeople, customer service representatives, spouses, par-
ents, and leaders, to name a few. It’s deceptively simple, as many effec-
tive techniques are, and it works like this. When you ask a question,
shut up until the answerer answers.
Sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? Try it, and you’ll dis-
cover how difficult it is to execute. Most of us are uncomfortable with
silence, and so we jump in to fill it. This behavior has lots of conse-
quences—different ones in different situations—but all of them seri-
ous. In the sales world, the commonly held wisdom says it this way:
The first person who talks after the question loses. When a ques-
tioner fills the silence after their own question, they do lose, big-time.
This is a perfect question to use to practice and develop your
comfort with silence. It’s the really at the end of the question that
guarantees the need for the answerer to pause to consider their
reply. The addition of that simple word pushes the answerer beyond
the quick, glib response they might have had ready after consider-
ing how much truth you’re looking for.
So, ask this question and wait, comfortably, while maintaining
eye contact, and then wait some more. You’ll continue to be sur-
prised how critical silence is for getting good answers to questions,
and this question will give you lots of opportunity to practice.
36. If you had to describe our organization in
one word, what would that word be?
More words adding up to longer answers do not necessarily provide
more insight. Sometimes questions that force brevity can provide
interesting answers that are easy to compare. This question falls into
that category.
Imagine asking this question of all new hires for six months.
Depending on the size of your organization and your rates of
turnover and expansion, you could develop and keep track of the
one-word answers pretty easily. What would be the value of that? I
can think of three.
1. As your list of descriptive words grows, you can compare
them and look for consistency of expectations from those
who join your organization or department. What do you
think it means if half the people respond with words like
“fun,” “energetic,” and “creative,” and the other half of the
people you’ve asked respond with words like “stable,” “tra-
ditional,” and “respectable”? My analysis of those
responses would be that half of the people who responded
were going to be disappointed. It’s up to you to decide
which half. A split response like this tells you that you
haven’t established a consistent image in your marketplace.
A consistent response that you like tells you your image is
intact. A consistent response you don’t like means you have
some actions to take.
2. As your list of words grows, you’ll gain insight into the way
people feel about your organization or department. Leaders
have responsibilities for feelings as well as facts, and you
might as well find out how people are feeling as they join
your team. Waiting until later isn’t exactly stellar leadership
3. Keep track of whom you’ve asked, how they answered, and
when you asked them. Use a milestone—four- to six-month
anniversaries would work—and ask the question again: Now
that you’ve been with us for a while, what one word would you
use to describe our organization? Asking and comparing these
answers will give you insight into the consistency of expe-
rience your people have as they become part of your team.
Don’t let the fact that my imagination was limited to three pos-
sibilities stunt your thought processes. What are other ways you
could use this information? Think about it.
37. What’s a great question I could ask some-
one who’s new to our organization?
This question is probably the most blatantly selfish question in the
entire book. Finding good questions becomes an obsession for lead-
ers who learn the value and power of asking questions. What better
way to find questions than to ask for them?
Asking for questions within your organization works for a while.
Every leader, even those who don’t make questioning a priority, will
have a few questions they routinely ask. But you’ll often find that
within an organization, questions seem to cluster around certain
themes. Asking for new questions from people who come from dif-
ferent organizational backgrounds will provide you with a whole
new set of possible questions.
But there is another, less selfish reason for asking this question of
a new hire. Their reaction will provide you with insights into their
comfort with a leader who asks questions. Some people will eagerly
share questions, some will haltingly respond with a question, and
others will stare blankly as if you’ve asked the most bizarre question
ever uttered.
The eager sharer is telling you either that they’ve joined your
team from a question-rich culture or that they understand the power
of questions and are happy to share. Work with this new employee
to strengthen their commitment to questioning and to encourage
them to share new questions as they find them.
The slow responder is letting you know that they haven’t had a
lot of experience with leaders who ask questions but are willing to
participate. Make sure you thank them for their contribution and
encourage them to make others in the future. Keep them in mind
for some gentle questioning in the near future so you can help
them understand this part of your leadership style.
The blank looker is harder to read. They may be confused by a
leader who asks questions, frightened by this level of interaction
with their new leader, or genuinely surprised by the action of a
leader asking them for their opinion. No matter which interpreta-
tion might be accurate, don’t jump to a conclusion. It’s now your
job to find out which of these (or any of many other explanations)
is the right one.
No matter which situation you encounter with this question, like
asking any good question of the right person at the right time, you’ll
get valuable information that you’ll be able to use in the future.
38. What questions can I answer for you?
If you don’t ask this question shortly after you meet a new employee,
if you don’t keep silent long enough for them to respond, and if you
don’t answer truthfully any questions that they do ask, you’ve lost
any chance for them to react positively to your questioning leader-
ship style in the future. More than just providing information, this
question is designed to begin the process of establishing trust.
Trust is a leader’s stock-in-trade. Without trust, it is impossible
to be a leader. You can be a manager, a boss, a dictator, or a ruler.
You can order people to do things, require rules to be followed,
inspire behavior from fear, or demand obedience, but you won’t
inspire confidence, encourage creativity, or be proud of yourself.
You can’t be a leader.
Trust is built and maintained through actions both big and small.
Respectfully asking questions and taking appropriate actions based
on the answers is one of the ways trust is built between leaders and
followers. Demonstrating your willingness to really listen to all the
If a question can be put at all,
then it can also be answered.
—Ludwig Wittgenstein,
Austrian philosopher
people on your team or in your organization is another. Asking
questions that go beyond the expected offers another path to trust.
Trust takes time to build, but it can be lost in a minute. As a
leader who asks questions, you need to watch out for these trust-
destroying behaviors:

Asking a question without listening to the answers
Expecting followers to take the time to answer your ques-
tions without taking the time to answer theirs

Treating their questions or answers as trivial

Missing an opportunity to ask the all-important follow-up

Not treating answers to questions with confidentiality (unless
you’ve asked for permission to share an answer)
If you ever, because of an enormous brain cramp, come close to
behaving in one of these ways, apologize at once, apologize repeat-
edly, apologize publicly (unless, of course, that would betray a con-
fidence and dig the hole you’re in even deeper), and then get to work
rebuilding the trust you’ve lost.
Remember, even if the person involved accepts your first apol-
ogy with a “Don’t worry, it’s not a big thing,” don’t believe him.
Smile, nod, and do the trust-building work anyway.

39. What are the strengths you bring to the
When you’re in a coaching situation, I believe that this is the best
beginning question. Not that it is easy for people to answer. Far
from it. Many of us are filled with childhood admonitions like
“Don’t boast” and “Be humble.” People who carry these messages
often have great difficulty articulating their personal strengths.
Some gave up trying years ago because the guilt they felt while giv-
ing themselves a personal pat on the back conflicted with the pride
they were feeling. Wouldn’t leading be easier if humans weren’t so
complex? But understanding our strengths is critical to success, and
so it becomes a leader coach’s job to help an individual compile this
list of strengths.
Conventional wisdom suggests that leaders have the responsibil-
ity to search out, point out, and sometimes even (gasp!) beat out an
employee’s weaknesses. Once again, conventional wisdom seems to
be wrong. Recent research by the Gallup Organization suggests that
a leader who focuses attention on identifying and fostering the
strengths of their employees will see improvement faster and further
than those who focus on trying to improve weaknesses.
A list of strengths needs to be specific in order to be helpful.
Coaches and mentors know how useless the “I’m good with people”
response really is. So this question requires some automatic follow-
up questions.

What does being “good with people” mean to you?

How do you do that?

Can you give me an example of when you did that?

What, of all the things you did in that situation, worked

What kind of feedback did you get after that happened?

How have you refined that skill over time?
All of these follow-up questions are designed to help your mentee
understand their true strengths in real terms. After this kind of con-
versation, “I’m good with people” becomes “I know how to help two
people in conflict find common ground and work together success-
fully.” A much better answer to build on.
40. What skills do you need to learn?
In the discussion of the last question, I suggested that building on
strengths was a better way to go as a coach than trying to eliminate
weaknesses. I hope I didn’t leave you thinking that you never had to
do anything with the latter. This is the question that moves you into
the tricky arena of weaknesses.
No one likes to think (let alone talk) about their deficiencies—
especially with their boss. Asking a person what they need to learn
is something completely different. If you were to ask me this ques-
tion, I’d give you answers that would include lifelong fantasies
(watercolor painting), practical stretch goals (writing a novel), and
an actual affects-my-job weakness (how to deliver tough feedback to
a co-worker). Being about to put one of my well-known-to-me
weaknesses in the middle of a list feels less dangerous than blurting
out that I’m really bad at giving feedback. (Actually I’m bad at get-
ting feedback, too, but I don’t even admit that to myself. The beauty
of the learning approach to weaknesses is that if I get to a class that
addresses part of my developmental need, I’m likely to get practice
on the other.)
A coaching or mentoring session that focuses on developing a
practical learning plan for the immediate future will be far more
fruitful in both the short and the long term for both of you.
41. What skills do you need to practice?
When coaches and mentors ask this question, they’re taking respon-
sibility in two areas—the quality of training programs and the qual-
ity of work experiences. Covers a lot of ground for a seven-word
question doesn’t it?
Let’s start with training. Training sessions that impart vast quan-
tities of information without considerable time for asking questions
and practicing are a waste of time. Adults learn when they do, not
when they hear. Imagine observing a class on interviewing skills. You
watch the students listen to the instructor; some even take notes. A
video is shown that presents several situations where interviews go
well and go wrong. There is a brief discussion after the video; the
instructor asks for questions and answers the few that are asked.
People fill out their evaluation forms and leave the room. See any
problem with that?
Try another scenario. Imagine observing a class on open-heart
surgery. You watch the students listen to the instructor; some even
take notes. A video is shown that presents several operations
where the surgery goes well and goes wrong. There is a brief dis-
cussion after the video; the instructor asks for questions and
answers the few that are asked. People fill out their evaluation
forms and leave the room. Do you have any desire to have that
surgeon operate on you?
You might be questioning whether it’s fair to put interviewing
skills in the same category with open-heart surgery, but look at it this
way. Is the skill set used by a person hiring a key employee for your
organization any less important than the skill set of the surgeon who
is walking into the operating room where you’re the one on the sur-
gical table? Demand that any training program your people are
attending has been designed by professionals who know how adults
learn and makes practice the most important part of the session.
Once someone has learned a new skill and practiced it in a learn-
ing setting, they have to be able to use the skill in a real-life situa-
tion. That’s the quality-of-work experience part of this question. You
wouldn’t be comfortable with a surgeon who told you that she’d had
extensive classroom experience doing open-heart procedures but
that you were going to be her first real patient, would you? You’d
want her to have assisted many times and you’d like to know she’d
be operating with an experienced surgeon at her side.
How about your mentee? After they’ve taken that class you
agreed upon, how are they going to get the real-world experiences
they need to cement their learning in a reality-based context? You
need to help them get the right assignments, the right support as
they use their new skills, and the right feedback to help them pol-
ish their newly learned technique.
And you thought being a coach was a snap.
42. Who in our organization do you need to know?
Business, any business, is about people. I will defend that statement
at any time, in any place, under any circumstance. Leaders know
more people, usually because they’ve been around longer and had
more opportunities to meet and converse with more people inside
and outside their organization. When a leader leaves one company
to go to another, it is more likely that they can—in the course of
their business day—keep in touch with people from their prior orga-
nization. Part of the leader’s job is to help others make connections.
Nowhere is this more helpful than in a coaching and mentoring ses-
sion. This question is designed to get your mental Rolodex going.
You listen to the response to this question and search for a person
you can recommend as a connection.
People need to find other people for information, perspective, or
advice. Each of these three situations has its own set of requirements.

Looking for information. Here you need to help your
mentee construct her own questions well so that when she
asks for information, she’s asking for the right information.
Usually you can suggest a phone contact unless the desired
information is detailed or lengthy. Make sure you give your
mentee permission to use your name as a reference.

Looking for perspective. When perspective is the goal of an
interaction between two people, a face-to-face meeting is
probably required. This is asking for more than a quick
answer, and you are sending your mentee to impose on
someone’s most precious commodity these days—time. In
this case, you will probably need to make a phone call of
explanation or facilitate the meeting yourself.

Looking for advice. I once coached a woman who was
struggling with issues around balancing her career with her
young children. I can remember my own issues of balance
well, but my experience was years ago, and things have
changed. I called a friend, a successful working mom I
know, and asked if she could spend some time with my
mentee, helping her figure out some strategies to keep her
sanity. Advice is a bigger request than information and per-
spective, and I needed to put some skin in the game by ask-
ing my friend what I could do to repay her. The night I
spent having pizza with her kids while she worked late on a
critical report was really quite fun.
No matter what form your connection takes, make sure you
remind your mentee about the basics of good networking. You
learned them from your mother or, if you didn’t, borrow my
mother’s lessons: Please, thank you, and the asker picks up the check.
43. What work would you like to be doing in
five years?
You don’t ask this question so you can hear the answer, you ask it so
your mentee can hear their answer. This is a question designed to
help people understand that they should dream about their future.
Isn’t it sad that we need to be encouraged to dream? Ask a six-year-
old and they’ll give you a list of all the things they want to be and
do. Ask a thirty-six-year old, and they’ll usually stammer and stut-
ter. Don’t let them duck it. “I don’t know. Guess I’ve never thought
much about it” can’t be an acceptable answer when a leader, acting
as a coach, asks this question.
Push. Make them think about it. Make it perfectly clear that
there is no right or wrong answer. They aren’t committing career
suicide if they admit to a secret passion that involves writing the
Great American Novel or starting their own business. You won’t
take them off the promotion list if they reveal that they want your
job. Let them know you’ve got five-year dreams too.

44. Why do you think we made you a leader?
Asking a question that requires self-evaluation is valuable for both
the asker and the answerer. The answerer gets the immediate chal-
lenge of doing the self-evaluation and the reward of the insights
they gain.
This question will provide you, the asker, with information on
how promotions are viewed within your organization. The reasons
individuals ascribe to other people’s promotions are often interest-
ing. The reasons they share for their own promotions are even more
Every clarification breeds new
—Arthur Bloch, American merchant
fascinating. You’ll get responses that are naive, cynical, and out of
left field. You’ll get some answers that are insightful, well-thought-
out, and accurate. You’ll find people who are embarrassed you asked
and those who can’t wait to talk about it—at length and in great
detail. Given this diversity of responses, why ask this question at all?
You ask it to determine how well your leadership promotion process
is working.
An answer that accurately reflects the balance you strive for
between the leadership behaviors your organization desires and the
skill set of the person who’s been promoted can give you confidence.
The right leadership messages are being sent by the process itself as
well as the individuals who are being promoted. This is good news
for you and your organization. Any time that this match doesn’t hap-
pen during the answer to this question, you’ve got some work to do.
Unfortunately, in many organizations, promotions to leadership
positions aren’t made on identifiable future leadership potential but
rather on past technical performance. Don’t misunderstand. I’m well
aware of the need for high standards when it comes to technical
expertise and of the fact that it’s often a challenge to find a person
who is both technology savvy and people savvy. But, just because it’s
difficult doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Just because the technical part
of our work is considered the hard side and the people part of our
work is referred to as the soft side, doesn’t mean that the hard-side
stuff is more important. In fact, one could argue (and many have)
that leadership is all about soft-side stuff.
Any omission of the soft-side issues in a new leader’s response to
this question should raise a red flag that requires your attention.
People can’t know what they don’t know, and a person who’s been
named a leader may not realize the new scope of their responsibili-
ties. You may need to mentor this person closely as they begin their
journey as a leader.
45. What did the best leader you ever had do?
I used to do customer service training until I started viewing poor
service as a bonus event that would provide me with more material,
a greater sense of job security, and a reason to celebrate. That’s a
perverse worldview, so I changed the focus of my work.
There was an exercise I did in those workshops that applies here.
Since everyone has been a customer, I asked participants to share the
worst customer service they’d ever experienced. Then we compiled
a list of the characteristics that made those encounters unbearable. I
scribbled their answers onto a large flip chart and then told them not
to be guilty of any of those behaviors themselves. This technique
worked quite well I might add, because we’ve all been a poorly
treated customer and can identify how the transaction went wrong.
The same technique can apply to leadership, especially when you
apply it with a positive spin. When you ask, What did the best leader
you ever had do?, you’re asking a new leader to identify the good lead-
ership behavior they’ve experienced. We’ve all been led by others and
can identify what worked. Listening to their answers and supporting
the behavior choices they’ve made also gives new leaders a sense of
confidence about their potential as leaders. Asking new leaders to
adopt positive leadership behavior they’ve experienced and have cho-
sen as beneficial is much more effective than burying them with a
laundry list of your own notions of effective leadership.
As your leadership dialogue with new leaders deepens over time,
these initial behaviors can be the ones you question them about. As
they grow more confident as leaders and as you have more insight
into their leadership strengths and development needs, you can sug-
gest other skills that they might want to work on as well as ways to
learn and develop them.
46. What do you need to learn to be a great
Why would you ask this question? Why do you ask any ques-
tion? Questions are asked in order to learn. This question goes
to the heart of the philosophy that believes that people aren’t
born to be great leaders; they’re great leaders because they’ve
learned to lead.
(A note of caution for this and the next question. Don’t ask these
questions if you and your organization don’t have the intention or
the systems in place to provide learning and support activities for
newly promoted leaders. It just isn’t fair.)
If I had to guess, I’d predict you’re going to hear answers that range
from “I don’t know” to “Here’s my list.” Think about your responses
to answers that fill that spectrum as I share a few of my ideas.
The person who responds with a list of leadership behaviors they
want or need to learn about needs help with prioritizing. If you don’t
help them focus their leadership learning objectives, they will
quickly become overwhelmed by the scope of all they believe they
don’t know. They need your guidance so they can pick one behav-
ior or skill to work on first. Based on your understanding of the
group this person is about to lead and their current leadership skill
set, make a few suggestions about places to start as well as what
resources are available. Be prepared to follow up with them in fairly
short order to make sure they’ve kept focused and not fallen into the
“I’m so overwhelmed I can’t do anything” trap.
A response of “I’m not sure yet” requires more questions. You
need to help this new leader explore the scope of good leadership
skills and find a way to discover where they should start their lead-
ership learning plan. If you’ve asked, What did the best leader you ever
had do?, you have some insight into this person’s view of good lead-
ership, and you can use that answer as a starting place.
A straight-on “I don’t know” response to this question means
you’ve got some work on your hands. My first concern would be to
see if this new leader is taking their new role seriously enough. I’d
hope that anyone who was stepping into their first leadership posi-
tion would have spent some time thinking about what they needed
to learn in order to become an effective leader. Trying not to let my
obvious negative judgment show (that’s probably something you
wouldn’t have to deal with, would you?), I’d indicate that we need
to continue this conversation for a while until the right follow-up
steps become obvious.
An aside. If you have influence over your organization’s training
programs, this question should make you curious about how you
prepare leaders in your organization. This would be a perfect time
to find out.
47. How can we support you as you grow into
this leadership position?
Please consider this question carefully. Asking it means that you
take leadership seriously, and it would be dishonest to ask if you
neither have the resources nor the intentions to provide the sup-
port you’re asking about. But, even if you don’t have a formal pro-
gram for new leaders, you can still support their efforts. You are
their leader, after all.
Support in general is a key aspect of a leader’s job. In fact, sup-
porting others as they work to get their jobs done is the biggest part
of a leader’s job. Your supportive actions will take many forms, but
they’re all just part of a broader support system for new leaders.

Leaders provide support when they act as role models. From
the superheroes of our youth to the inspiring figures of
adulthood, we’ve all craved having someone to show us how
to behave. This if-I-had-a-pattern-I-could-follow-it stems
from our earliest way of learning. As very young children we
watched the people around us, imitated their behavior, and
learned about how the world worked. Leaders can support
by serving as role models.

Leaders provide support when they break barriers for their
teams. Leaders aren’t leading when they solve problems for
their team. But they aren’t leading either if they distance
themselves from their team’s issues. Leaders are right on tar-
get when they help a team clarify the problem they’re work-
ing on, offer a wider perspective on an issue, provide feedback
(when requested) on a particular solution, offer access to
resources when implementation is imminent, or take a battle
farther up in the organization when something falls outside
of the team’s charter. Leaders provide support when they
eliminate appropriate barriers.

Leaders provide support when they listen. Sometimes peo-
ple need a sounding board for their thoughts and ideas—not
a surface that talks back, but a surface that reflects their own
thoughts and ideas so the team can see their work from a
fresh perspective. People need a surface that asks questions
when clarity is needed. Good listening behavior allows a
leader to do all these things. Leaders provide support when
they listen.
Practice these, and add other supporting behaviors to your lead-
ing repertoire. There is probably no more rewarding work for a
leader to do than to nurture new leaders. The bonus is that you’ll
be a better leader for it.

48. Are you all right?
In a crisis this question will mean different things to different peo-
ple, and that’s perfectly okay. Some people will assume that you’re
asking about their physical well-being and will answer from that per-
spective. Some will assume you’re asking about their mental state
and will answer that way. Still others will give you credit for think-
ing and caring about both. They’ll answer with that interpretation
in mind. No matter which question they believe you’ve asked, their
answers will be valid.
In times of crisis, people look to their leaders for clues to the
behavior that’s expected. The last thing a leader should do in emer-
gency situations is to disappear. If you disappear, your people will
create reasons for your absence, none of which will be particularly
Good questions outrank easy
—Paul A. Samuelson,
American economist
favorable to you or your leadership. Your organization, your lead-
ership team, your people, or, in some situations, the public, can’t
afford for you to disappear, hide behind spokespeople, stop making
eye contact, or utter repeated No comments. (There are ways of not
making a statement without saying No comment. Learn how from a
professional.) The bigger the crisis, the more visible, approachable,
and accessible leaders need to be. No excuses. No exceptions.
Okay, maybe one little exception. If you’re facing a major crisis,
one that seriously limits your ability to spend time with each person
you need to ask this question of, appoint people to ask and listen in
your place. Gather them together and explain that “The first thing
we need to do is to check on our team. I want each of you to talk
and listen to as many of our people as you can by asking them if
they’re okay.” Then, plan your timetable, send the group out to ask
and listen, and regroup to discuss the responses and plan your next
actions. This exception does not extend permission to disappear
from the eyes of the people who look to you for leadership. I’ve
granted you permission to ease up on the approachability and acces-
sibility, but not the visibility.
If this isn’t making sense, let me try one more time. Does think-
ing about Mayor Giuliani’s conduct after September 11th make the
picture clearer?
49. What do you need to know?
Crisis creates fear, and the only way I know to quell fear is with
information. Your job as a leader during a crisis is to be visible,
approachable, accessible (see the comments on the previous ques-
tion), and the fount of all information. Impossible, you say. I guess
I agree. It’s impossible, and yet a leader needs to figure out how to
make it happen during a crisis.
As I see it, the only possibility of pulling this one off is a combi-
nation of two things. First, you need to have your own support
group that is made up of the smartest people you can find and that
can be mobilized quickly. Some need to be people-smart. These are
the individuals who know the soft side of leadership inside and out.
Others need to be technology wizards in whatever technology makes
your business run and makes it special. These people won’t neces-
sarily be leaders; in fact, some of them will be frontline doers. Just
make sure you know who they are and how to get them close to you
in a hurry. With your team assembled, you can go to work.
You’ll be the point person, talking to people and asking them
what they need to know. Some responses you’ll be able to answer
immediately. Some answers will come from the members of your
team. There are some things you’re asked for that you or your team
won’t be able to provide right away. That’s where the second part of
the strategy comes into play.
Make it the job of those soft-skills experts to keep track of the
unanswered questions and the people who asked them. As informa-
tion becomes available, research is completed, and answers found, it
is the job of the soft-skills people to get those details out—deliver-
ing the right answers to the right people. If there is a significant time
lapse between questions being asked and answers being available,
these people will also have the responsibilities for periodic updates
and check-ins so no one feels as if the information they’ve requested
isn’t important, or even worse, as if they’re not important.
If this feels like a lot of work, it is. The scope of your crisis will
determine the complexity of your information distribution process
and system. Just don’t lose sight of what started the need for all this
in the first place.
You’re the leader. You and your people are living through a cri-
sis. You asked the question a good leader would ask: What do you need
to know?
❚ ❚ ❚
50. What do you need?
Now reread the answer to the last question. Probably the team you
assembled in response to that question will continue to deal with the
results of asking this question. There’s one more thing to focus on.
In a time of crisis, when emotions are high, it’s tempting, yet dis-
astrous, to promise things you hope you can provide but which,
when the question is asked, you aren’t sure you can deliver. People
don’t cut you a lot of slack for these promises. Remember, they hear
the promises through their own emotions and often cling to them
as literal lifelines. Going back on a promise (even an implied one)
with so much emotion invested, is at best uncomfortable and at
worst a disaster (potentially bigger than the original crisis).
So what’s a leader to do? Only make promises you can person-
ally fulfill by your own authority or out of your wallet. For things
beyond those parameters, stop, listen carefully, take notes about the
issue or need, and respond with something like the following:
“What I’ve heard is that you need [recap the individual’s request].”
Pause and wait for confirmation. “What I’m doing with all requests
that we can’t immediately fill is the same thing I promise to do with
yours. I’ve taken notes along with your contact information. My
promise to you is that I will be back in touch with you by [insert a
reasonable length of time]. By then we’ll have a better grasp of the
entire situation and I’ll be able to answer your request accurately.”
Putting this in your own words and practicing it will make it your
own. Discuss it with your crisis team and make sure they understand
the impact for all of you when any one of you makes a promise that
can’t be kept later. Apply the old customer service motto:
Underpromise and overdeliver and you’ll be all right.
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❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚
If you weren’t convinced before, then after reading this chapter you
must be sure that most leadership activities include some form of
special circumstance. It is these special, unexpected, out-of-the-
ordinary moments that define leadership as something beyond sim-
ply watching tasks being accomplished, projects being completed on
time and under budget, and customers being served. It is what makes
art the necessary adjunct to the science of leadership. It’s what makes
the role of leader an exciting place of creativity.
Leaders in different organizations, different industries, and dif-
ferent teams face different special circumstances. The ones I focused
on in this chapter are fairly common. But I don’t know yours. Based
on your past history in your environment, what special situations do
Effective management always
means asking the right ques-
—Robert Heller, American editor
you imagine you’ll face in the next twelve months? This would be a
great time to use the worksheet on the following pages to make a
list of your potential special situations and to brainstorm questions
you could use if and when any of those situations actually happened.
I worked with an excellent leader for many years. He often told
his team, “Don’t bring me any surprises.” He meant it, and they
learned that he meant it. I watched him talk (to use a polite form of
an appropriate verb) to one of his team members when a surprise
came through her team and surfaced at the top in his office. It wasn’t
very pretty and not a really great example of leadership. On the
other hand, I had also been present when that surprise unfolded and
I watched him handle the customer with the big, long-term prob-
lem that he hadn’t known about. That conversation seemed to be
handled by another man entirely. In fact, if I hadn’t been there for
both of them, I wouldn’t have believed a single person could behave
so differently. So I asked.
“Why were you so calm and powerful when you talked to the cus-
tomer and so out-of-control and unfocused when you talked to your
direct report?”
“I’ve spent years thinking about and creating questions to ask
when a customer has a problem,” he said. “I just never thought to
do the same for a time when one of my team disappointed me.”
No matter how long you’ve been a leader, thinking things
through, developing a set of questions that match a situation, and
practicing is a really good idea.
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❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚
1. Which of the special situations in this chapter did you find most
compelling? Why?
2. What other special situations do you face?
3. What questions do you need to think about for those situations?
4. How will you answer those questions?


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