Written for the Harvard Business Review.
The higher up you go in an organization, the harder it is to stay in touch with what’s really happening on the front lines. And the bad news—if you hear it at all—is presented only in the best possible light. How do you get the real truth about what’s happening out in the field? How do you stay connected to all corners of your organization? I have found that three simple questions, asked with the intent to learn, can help you stay in touch with reality and be a better 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 ask the simple question, “How can I help you?” He asked it continually of his employees, his suppliers, and his customers—and he demanded that each of his managers do the same too. Conant knew that as a leader he needed to show he cared about the employees’ and customers’ agendas if he wanted them to care about the company’s agenda. With this one question, people knew that Conant cared, had high expectations, and was committed to solving problems, adding resources, and removing barriers. Through literally thousands of these connections with people, Conant was able to stay in touch, build confidence, motivate, and create urgency for transforming Campbell Soup. He reversed precipitous declines in market value, employee engagement, financial results, and corporate responsibility.
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 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 delivering outstanding patient care. McKenzie 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 Schein, a $10 billion 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, the most important reason to visit is connecting with the people. In each office he visits, he makes sure he and his top people reach out to every person in the building. No one is left out. The questions he asks them are about values and how they are being demonstrated. He might ask a salesperson, “Are we living into our values as a company in ways that support you?” He wants the truth and he has established a reputation as someone who listens—and takes action based on what he hears. He continually relates the story of what Henry Schein is doing and will do, and he’s tireless in his commitment to show that each individual is a valued contributor to “Team Schein.” His entire message is, “I want to be certain you are getting everything you need to do your job well, and that we show you respect all along the way.”
Three questions, three stories. Each one puts you in closer touch with reality, builds trust, and inspires high performance. Each time you ask these questions, you’re also acting as a role model for others in your organization. Being present, asking the right questions, and listening to what your customers, employees, suppliers, and investors have to tell you creates an invaluable feedback loop for your performance as a leader and for the organization as a whole. Do it consistently and others will follow with astounding results.