Excerpted with the permission of the authors from Chapter 18 of Power Questions:
I’m at lunch with my client, Claire. She runs a division of a large, publicly held company. We arrive early, and the restaurant is nearly empty.
We meet two or three times a year, usually to debrief on the advisory work I’m doing for Claire’s organization. Our conversation begins with small talk. Then it shifts to a discussion about the initiatives I am helping to develop for her division.
By the time we are finishing the main course, we have exhausted the marketing discussion. This almost always happens. After all, who wants to talk about business for an entire meal?
The patrons are lined up at the door now, and the restaurant is nearly full.
There is silence as the waiter clears our plates. I look up at Claire. I decide to shift the conversation. “How are you doing?” I ask.
“Good, I’m good.” More silence. “It’s been pretty relentless.”
“Relentless?” (Sometimes, just echoing the last word of someone’s sentence will cause more to be revealed).
“There are my external commitments. You know, seeing key customers, meeting with suppliers, and so on. Then, all the day-to-day internal management I am involved in. it’s a 70-hour week that could become 100 if I let it.” She heaves a sigh.
I want to ask about the details of her work, to dissect her effectiveness with each constituency. The problem-solver in me is chomping at the bit.
Instead, I take a breath and pause.
“Claire, I’m curious…you’ve been in the divisional CEO role now for over a year. As you think about the job, what things do you wish you could spend more time on, and what activities do you wish you could do less of?”
She reflects for a minute. I can see her brain is suddenly churning.
“Hmm…that’s an interesting question.” Another pause.
“First of all, I wish I had more time to spend on coaching and mentoring the executives on my leadership team. I love doing it, and I’m good at it. And I know they can be much better than they are today. Second, we’ve got an ambitious strategy to develop lower-cost products for emerging markets. Yet, I’ve never even been to many of the countries we want to sell to.”
An hour later we are still sitting at the lunch table. The line at the Maitre D’s station is gone. The tables are mostly empty again.
I’ve learned more about Claire’s priorities than I thought possible. I know what frustrates her. I understand how she would like to refocus her time going forward.
A few months later, Claire completely reorganizes her office and creates a new position to provide additional support for her. When I see her next, I smell a new zest for her role, an enthusiasm that I haven’t seen since she was promoted.
I wanted to dissect the individual pieces of Claire’s role and suggest small improvements. That requires analysis. It’s when you pull something apart and assess the components one by one. “Improve your meeting management!” Or, “Delegate more effectively!” It would have helped. A little.
What Claire really needed was a completely fresh look at her role and her priorities. That requires synthesis. You look at the whole first. You also look at personal strengths and preferences. For that, I needed to ask a question that would push her to sit back and reflect on the totality of her job.
Would you like to know more about Power Questions? Here is a really well done video overview Power Questions by Andrew Sobel: Power Questions
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