I want to tell you about one of the most remarkable men I have ever known. I’ll give you the short version.
Thomas S. Monaghan is the founder of Domino’s Pizza. He began in a room not much larger than most bedroom closets— a room 13 feet at its widest.
That was in 1960. The company grew from that one shop to more than 6,250 locations and 130,000 employees. He sold the company in 1998.
Domino’s was privately owned by Tom and his family, so the exact amount they received in the sale is not public information. But I can tell you it was around a billion dollars.
He decided to sell so he could start a second career as a philanthropist. “I want to give it all away before I die ,” he said to me one day. (He’s been pretty successful at that already. He figures he has given away somewhere between $ 700 to $ 800 million thus far.)
But this isn’t the story about the fastest growing chain in the history of the United States at that time. That is another chapter for another time.
I want to tell you more about this extraordinary man . We’re having dinner at his favorite restaurant. (No, we’re not eating pizza!) Tom is. . .well, Tom is what some would say a bit fussy about his food. No sauce on the fish, no starch, vegetables boiled with no butter or oil. His doctor says he’ll live to be 100. Knowing Tom and his habits, I would bet on it.
He grew up in an orphanage. At the age of six, his greatest influence was Sister Berardo, one of the nuns at the orphanage. She said to him repeatedly during the day: “Tommy, be good, be the best you can be. Tommy, be good, be the best you can be.” He has spent his life since then following that dictum. To be good and to do good. In our many visits, I’ve probed and prodded. Tom is my hero. I’ve asked plenty of questions.
Would you like to know more about Tom? I think I’ll write a book!
But first let me tell you about a question I ask him on this visit. His response is the most surprising I could possibly imagine. Totally unexpected. I find it absolutely amazing.
I ask Tom the same question I ask folks quite often:
What is the greatest achievement in your life?
It’s truly a power question that always opens the mind and exposes the spirit of a person. It unlocks the prison of memories.
Are you ready for an answer you would never guess?
“Tom, what is the greatest achievement in your life?”
I expect him to tell me about starting what becomes the largest pizza chain in the world. No, that isn’t it.
Or building and funding Ave Maria University, a great Catholic institution. And creating and supporting the Ave Maria School of Law. No, that isn’t it.
Or how about his purchase of the Detroit Tigers and winning the World Series? That would be an extraordinary achievement. But that isn’t it.
Or coming up with the idea of Legatus (Latin for Ambassador). This is the largest Catholic organization in the world for power leaders and CEOs of corporations. The group is committed to studying, living, and spreading the Catholic faith. That alone would gain him admission to anyone’s hall of fame. But that isn’t it either.
Reader, you will be surprised. I was, and I thought I knew Tom. Are you ready for his answer?
“Tom, what is the greatest achievement in your life?” I ask him.
“It was the day I applied to and was accepted in the Marine Corps. That was my greatest achievement.”
“What?! Tom, of everything you have achieved in life, it’s serving in the Marine Corps?”
“Yes. It taught me character, discipline, and values. It changed my life.” From there we spend the next 30 minutes talking about his life-changing experiences in the Marines.
The Marine Corps motto is Semper Fidelis (Always Faithful). It seems to be ingrained in all who serve in this elite group. There is a life-long dedication and loyalty, a fraternity of comradeship that Marines have for the Corps and their country.
Do not be surprised if you get a totally unexpected response when you ask this question. That’s because you will uncover the unfiltered psyche of the person you’re talking with. You can count on that.
Oh, just a bit of unrelated trivia. You’ve seen the logo of Domino’s. You have perhaps asked as I have— why two dots on one side and one on the other side of the domino? When Tom had just three shops, he asked an artist to design a logo. The three dots stand for the three shops that existed at the time. It continues to be the logo through all the years of growth.
To understand someone’s inner being and learn what has been most important to them, ask: “What is the greatest achievement in your life?”
“What is the greatest achievement in your life?”
This question has many levels to it. It contains the potential to create deep, multi-layered conversations. It raises additional questions: Is it possible to define a single greatest achievement? Do we mean professional achievement or in any sphere, such as personal and family life? How do we define achievement, after all? It is a powerful question that provokes deep thought and dialogue.
Even if the other person has difficulty citing a single experience, you will learn a great deal about them. (And by the way, be prepared to answer this question yourself, as it may get quickly turned around on you!)
When to use the question
Alternative versions of the question
Note from Bob: Are you amazed by how many “Power Questions” are so simple? Until I read this chapter of “Power Questions” I had never heard of, or thought of this incredibly simple powerful question. Now I continually look for opportunities to ask it often and am consistently amazed by the wonderfully personal thoughtful responses that this simple question allows me to hear!
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