The Power of Questions at the Front Line

I write to transformational leaders — or those who aspire to be one — because you are the catalysts for change.  Transformational leaders have internalized the power of connectedness.  As a part of gaining mastery, you have to get out of the office and engage ….   all while communicating very high standards of excellence.  Evaluate yourself against three powerful questions that can transform you as a leader - 

Get out of your office and ask, “How can I help you?”

Doug Conant, while he was CEO of Campbell Soup Company, knew that if he was going to transform the company culture, he had to get out on the front lines and ask the simple question, “How can I help you?”  He asked it continually of his employees, his suppliers, and his customers.  In his excellent book, TouchPoints, he outlines how Campbell Soup Company went from a culture of low engagement to a culture of high engagement.  On Doug’s first day at work, a company wide meeting was held to introduce him as CEO.  Doug made a promise that became known as the Campbell Promise:  Campbell Valuing People, People Valuing Campbell.  He knew that leaders must show they care about the employees’ agenda before employees would care about the company’s agenda. Through literally thousands of “valuing” connections, Doug was able to establish a new direction for the company and build a lasting legacy.

As a CEO, you know you need information from the front lines and you only get the truth if you show real interest and concern.  A simple question, asked with the intent to learn, is empowering and highly motivating.  People knew Doug Conant cared, had high expectations, and was committed to getting them what they needed to do their job.  Doug knew that each of his interactions represented an opportunity to build or tear down confidence, to motivate or demotivate, to build urgency or create resistance.  Doug knew the power of positive connection, one person at a time, and demanded it from each of his managers.   

Get out on the front lines and ask, “Why are we doing it this way?” 

Mark McKenzie, the CEO of Senior Care Centers, a large skilled nursing company in Texas, often asks, “Why are we doing it this way?”  He asks with the intent to learn, not to criticize.  He knows that as the company grows, which it is doing rapidly, it  will need new systems and new structures, and all of these need to be aligned with outstanding patient care. Mark is building a culture of asking WHY and getting everyone engaged in the joy of being heard, seeing things change, and measuring progress.  

Get out to your farthest perimeters and ask the question, “How are we doing in living out our values?”     

Stanley Bergman, the CEO of Henry Shein, a 10 billion dollar global medical supply company, visits each company office at least once per year in every part of the globe.  He meets with the country leaders and the product teams. Yes, he has great financial controls and excellent budget targets for each country and each product line, but as he says, most importantly, it’s about connecting with the people. The questions he asks people are most often about the values and how they are being lived out.  He might ask a salesperson, “How are we doing as a company in living out our values to best support you?” He wants the truth and he communicates he is there to listen. His entire non-verbal message is, “I care about insuring you are getting everything you need to do your job well, and that we show you respect all along the way.” 

In every office he visits, he makes sure he and his top people make a connection with every person in the building when they pay a visit.  They leave no one out. He repeats continually a story of what Henry Shein is doing and will do. He is tireless in his commitment to showing respect to each and every person.  

Three questions, three stories. All with the intent of building high trust teams in the new connection economy.  Every interaction in the value chain either adds value or subtracts value.  Your job as a transformational leader is to model how each interaction adds value.   When observed, others will follow.