Memo to leaders: The 3 questions you really need to be able to answer

Of course there are lots of questions that leaders need to be able to answer and really smart leaders know that the essence of leading in today’s context is more about asking the right questions than feeling they always need to have the right answers. However, when it comes to your organisation, here are three questions for which you really do need to have the answers. I am constantly surprised by the gap that exists between what I hear from the CEO and his or her people; and when this discrepancy exists, it is because the leader has not found the answer to these important questions.

MemoThey are three questions that will help you gauge the health of your organisational culture and need I remind you of two truisms concerning organisational culture: (1) Culture is your responsibility and, (2) culture eats strategy for breakfast every time!

Here then the 3 questions you really need to be able to answer:

1) What are my people really thinking?

As the leader it is important to know what your people are thinking. All too often leadership assumes they know yet the reality is that there is a gulf between what their people are really thinking and what leadership thinks they are thinking. This is of particular importance in any change initiative or process and one cannot assume that what is being said reflects the real thoughts of your people. When there is a dislocation between what is being thought and expressed, there is cause for concern when it comes to your organisation’s culture.

2) What are my people really saying?

All too often staff merely parrot the ‘company line’ or express the ‘safe’ option rather than say what really needs to be said. You cannot assume that what you hear your people say is what they are really saying. There are times when more is said by what is not being said and smart leaders are quick to recognize this and respond accordingly. The presence of 360 appraisals and any number of performance review tools does not automatically translate into an open and transparent culture in which one can say what needs to be said. All too often these tools produce the exact opposite of that state. Smart leaders listen carefully and look for the cues to determine that what is being said is aligned with the true thoughts and feelings that underpin the verbal messaging that is taking place.

3) What are my people really doing?

It is said that ‘actions speak louder than words’. All too often the actions (or non-actions) demonstrated by your people reveal that all is not well. Again the measures we have in place can detect when this is the case – to a degree at least. There are actions that often fall outside the scope of such performance measures, actions that reveal the true state of affairs. Smart leaders are able to spot these and they pay attention to any discrepancy in this particular expression of the organisational culture. How often have you heard the expression, ‘don’t do as I do, do as I say’? This highlights the discord that may exist and when this type of statement is true of any environment, there is cause for concern.

They are simple questions and for each question the key word is the ‘really’.

What then can you, as a leader, do to get to plummet the depths of these three cultural barometers? The simple answer is to ‘walk the floor’ in a manner appropriate to your particular context and culture. I know of a CEO of a private bank that abandoned his plush personal office and set-up his desk in the middle of the open plan space occupied by his staff. His reasoning was simply to be able to have an authentic answer to these three questions. This single act reverberated around the office in a manner that had a powerful impact on the organisational culture and it remains one of the finest leadership examples I have ever witnessed.

To find the answers to these vital questions you will need to look beyond the obvious and create mechanisms that will allow you to accomplish this. Make time for informal conversations; ask a lot of questions and then really (there is that word again!) listen; show up when you are not expected and participate in processes and activities that you wouldn’t ordinarily be expected to be a part of. There are lots of creative ways to get under the skin of such questions – you just need to be discipline to pause and think about how and what this could mean for you. It is really not that difficult. Right now you are most likely about to give the “no time” defense. My response to that is simply, “really?”

There is perhaps no more important work or way in which you can spend your time than in knowing what your people are really thinking, saying and doing. This is your responsibility!

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