Excerpted from 78 Important Questions Every Leader Should Ask and Answer by Chris Clarke-Epstein with the permission of the publisher

Note from Bob – if you only have 60 seconds to read this post – then don’t miss these 7 Questions you will want to begin asking your employees:

7 Questions that Leaders Need to Ask Employees About the Business

  1.  How do we make money?
  2. How does your work contribute to our success?
  3. How could we save money?
  4. How could you make your job more effective?
  5. What’s the most important thing you know about our customers?
  6. What’s something we could offer to our customers?
  7. Who do you see as our competition, and what do you know about them?

Note from Bob – if you have a bit more time you don’t want to miss reading the rest of this terrific excerpt:

As a leader, you also need to focus your attention on the people you lead.

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.

AFinOne 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 to talk about the number of people who stare blankly at the mention 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 without 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 opportunity 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 thinking about and delivering the information that the student needs in a way that will be meaningful to them

1.  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 manufacturing 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 article in the June 1995 issue of Inc., John Case describes the three elements that make Open-Book Management different.

(1)  Every employee sees-and learns to understand-the company’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.

2.  How does your work contribute to our success?

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.

No one, it seemed to me, had helped her understand the importance of her job. When she answered the phone, she represented 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’ve accountants or janitors, understands that they play a crucial part in your organization’s success.

3.  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.

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 to hear them. The more you ask this question, the better the answers you will get.

4.  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 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 customers’ – 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 harrier 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.

5.  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 customers 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 people 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 packaging 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 unlimited supply of information to act on.

Answers to this question will fall into four categories

One:  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.

Two:  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 responsibilities and fostering continued dialogue can clear up this misinformation.

Three:  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 customers well or are you collectively operating on old data? Funny how one question leads to another, isn’t it?

Four:  People’s answers will surprise you with insights you’ve never had.

Don’t be embarrassed. These are the most exciting answers of all. Insights are a function of viewing the status 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!

6.  What’s something we could offer to our customers?

The best time to ask this question is when you’re talking to a customer. The next best time to ask this question is when you’re talking 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 brainstorming is to amass quantity, not force quality. Unfortunately, many people forget this rule, ask for ideas, stifle the conversation by judging each idea as soon as it’s mentioned, and then wonder why their people 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.

7.  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 employees 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 Amazon.com. 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 Amazon.com-like competitor for at least part of your business. Asking this question might just give you the heads-up you need.

Leaders take the answers to these questions as an energizing starting 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 organization with the knowledge and tools necessary for them to be a full participant right from the beginning.

Note from Bob:  What do you as a Leader have to do to begin benefiting from this terrific excerpt?  You are 100% correct – You have to begin asking your employees these questions! 

Chris Clark-Epstein 2Chris Clarke-Epstein, Certified Speaking Professional is a change expert who has spent the last 28 years challenging diverse groups including senior leadership teams, middle management supervisors, and health care professionals to apply new knowledge.  Author of and contributor to more than 15 books, Chris teaches and writes in critical areas such as understanding the dynamics of change, delivering effective feedback, dealing with conflict, and building high performance teams.  You can connect with Chris @ Change101.com



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