Excerpted with the permission of the authors from Chapter 31 Power Questions:
“This was a tough one,” Roger explains to me. “I wasn’t sure how to handle it.”
“Tough? How?” I ask. I am amazed. “I’ve never seen you intimidated by meeting anyone. I can’t imagine you being at a loss for words.”
I want to hear more. Roger is one of the most confident, intelligent, and savvy consultants I have ever met. And he is no ordinary consultant.
After graduating as a Baker Scholar from Harvard Business School, he worked for 15 years at one of the most prestigious consulting firms in the world. Then, he left to be CEO of a large division of a Fortune 100 company. After five years of honing his leadership skills in the corporate world, he returned to his consulting firm, where he is now a senior partner.
Roger possesses a rare blend of relationship skills and analytical rigor. When he works with clients, he doesn’t demonstrate the “sometimes wrong but never in doubt” confidence that some consultants flaunt. Rather, he exemplifies the “I know what it’s like to walk in your shoes” understanding and empathy that only comes with 30 years of experience.
“So tell me the story. What happened?” I ask. Roger sits back, and takes another sip of coffee. I lean forward in my chair, pen and notepad in hand.
“A company engages us for a major strategy development project. It is very high profile work. We are three months into the engagement, and I have a meeting coming up with the CEO.
“I have met him several times before, but they were just brief discussions. This time we will be one-on-one, and I will have ample time.”
“This sounds like a great setup. Go on!”
“You have to understand who this man is. He’s an intimidating figure, six foot eight inches tall with striking blue eyes the color of a robin’s egg. He has an encyclopedic memory. He never forgets a conversation or anything he reads. I’ve never met an executive who has such a complete command of his company’s operations.”
(I’m thinking, I’m glad it was Roger and not me. This is like General Robert E. Lee meeting Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery to discuss battle strategies).
“He was raised in an orphanage. Blessed with a sharp intellect and a powerful work ethic. He went to an Ivy League college and graduated summa cum laude. He worked his way up from an entry-level job at a manufacturing plant to become chairman and chief executive officer. Now, he is just a few years away from retirement.
“The problem is. . .I am struggling to come up with something truly compelling to say to this CEO. What intelligent statement can I make or insightful piece of information can I furnish that will demonstrate I am a worthy advisor to his company?
“After thinking about it for days, realize that nothing I can tell him from our strategic analysis will be stunning or original. We are doing great work, and have lots of interesting findings. But I don’t feel that part of our conversation will truly stand out.
“I decide I need to ask him a compelling question. But what can I ask him that won’t come across as contrived—or at best, something he hasn’t already heard from 10 other people?”
“So, what did you come up with?”
“Sometimes the best questions are simple, direct, and help you connect on a personal level. So, my briefing on the project ends. The small talk begins to die down. I take a deep breath. Then I say to the CEO:
“‘William, I’d like to ask you something.’
“‘Of course, go ahead,’ he replies.
“‘You’ve had an extraordinary career. You have accomplished so much, starting at the very first rung of the ladder, on the manufacturing floor. I’m guessing you’ve lost count of your many well-deserved awards and accolades.’
“The CEO smiles. I think I have touched the right button. He gives me begrudging acknowledgment and nods his head.
“‘As you look ahead—is there something else you’d like to accomplish? Is there a dream you’ve yet to fulfill?’
“He pauses, looks straight at me. His eyes pierce me through. He becomes lost in thought for a few seconds. Then he slowly replies, ‘You know, Roger, over many years I’ve collaborated closely with my board of directors. I’ve worked with lots of investment bankers and consultants, and with several large foundations I am engaged with. I’ve been involved with all sorts of smart and successful people. But no one has ever asked me that. Nobody ever asked me that question. Nobody .
“The room is still. ‘Yes, I do have something in mind.. . .’ he begins.
“Our meeting, which is due to end at noon sharp, ends up taking another half hour—an eternity on a CEO’s tight schedule. More importantly, our relationship, which is strong to this day, really begins to develop after I ask that question.”
I’m dying to hear what Roger’s client tells him. But it has to wait.
“Now, the actual substance of what he wants to do after he steps down as CEO is also fascinating,” Roger continues, “but it’s not actually the main point of this story. This story is about the question—about asking someone, at just the right moment, ‘Is there something else you’d like to accomplish?’ It’s about connecting with their dreams.”
Compliment a client, colleague, or friend on their achievements. But don’t stop there. Draw out their deepest, most heartfelt aspirations.
Ask: “Is there something else you’d like to accomplish? Is there a dream you’ve yet to fulfill?”