Executive Education

Does Your World Smell Of Paint?

The queen, I imagine, thinks the world smells of paint. Twenty feet in front of her there is a small army of people making hurried and practiced arrangements to have everything ship-shaped and Bristol-fashion as befitting a world head of state. All rough corners are filed down and sanded, suits are pressed, windows are buffed, squeaky hinges are oiled, and everything is given a brand new lick of paint. So, how ‘accurate’ is her view of the real world, I wonder?

As the leader of your division or enterprise are you also getting a lavender-scented, plumped-up, freshly-painted view of the world? What you most need to hear from your people, of course, is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. But, here’s the bad news: almost no one is telling you the truth. You think you’re approachable, fair, and level-headed but, trust me, you’re not… at least not in the minds of your people. You likely get close to the truth, of course; close, but no cigar.

Your managers remember well that day a few months ago when you went bananas when they gave you bad news about the quarterly forecast. They remember the time you heard something you didn’t quite like about the latest manufacturing numbers, and they felt the arctic breeze blow across the conference table, over their shoulder, and down their back. They remember how quickly Bob in finance disappeared when a customer rebate was not properly accounted for.

You call yourself driven. They call you aggressive. You say you like working with smart people. They say you only hang with your favorites. You say you demand the very best. They say you’re a micro-manager. You say you have an open door. They say it’s only open when you’re out to lunch. You say you’re approachable. They say yes, but only if they catch you in the right mood… and they wait a long time to catch you in that mood. Each time they open their mouths, they’re thinking about the potential consequences of your wrath.

So rather than articulate, they calculate. Some clam up. Worse yet, others have learned what you want to hear, and they’re happy to feed it to you. It all smells a bit, well, paint-like.

Your team stops short of 100% candor. They give you maybe 97% at best, leaving out the really crucial 7%, quietly hoping you’ll fill in the blanks and covering their bets by not quite showing their whole hand, or betraying the poor performance of their team (or the team of others).  Unfortunately, the real magic lies in that critical 7%.

When you ask for a report, a summary, or even call out the next item on the agenda, ask yourself, “Am I getting the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth from those around me? What can I do to increase the level of candor? How can I frame my questions much better to get to that elusive, critical 7%?” Remember, the real magic information that you really need to hear lies in that 7%, don’t assume that you’re getting it. And when you do hunt it out, you’d do well to stay calm, stay controlled, thank them for it (and mean it), and start to fix things.

Here’s a short list of examples and alternatives to the very typical questions asked by most leaders. The alternative questions are designed to get closer to the magic…

Don’t ask… Ask…
How are things going? What’s the one thing we should do better?
Any questions? Tell me, what have I missed?
Is that clear? Can you tell me, in your own words, what we have agreed?
When will that be done? What’s ‘broken’, ‘missing’, or ‘confused’ that might slow down our progress in this?
Shall we do this? If you were me, how would you do this?
Can I have this? What support can I get to help you with this delivery?
Do you need help? What help, however large, small, or complex, do you believe you might need?
Where did the team go wrong? Hindsight is 20/20 vision. Knowing what we now know, how do we do this better next time?
Who screwed up? If we could do this over, how should we have approached this better, and who needs the most
What policy do we need to review in order to stop this happening again? What would a truly enlightened and world-class organization do to try to fix this?
What shall we do next? Of the options available to us, which ones bring us closer and quicker, to our key strategic
objectives, and why?

By approaching your questions as shown, you will start to get better answers, get closer to the truth, and get much higher levels of performance from your team. As an added benefit you will set a great example for your direct reports who also need to get closer to the truth from their people, of course.  Your tonality when asking these questions is critical too. As a general guideline try to adopt a “nurturing parent” tonality, not “authoritative leader” tonality. Demonstrate real maturity and emotional composure when asking great questions. Remember, bad questions lead to bad answers; great questions lead to great answers.

Have you read?
Antonio Garrido’s new book is Asking Questions The Sandler Way.

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Antonio Garrido
Antonio Garrido, author of MY DAILY LEADERSHIP: A Powerful Roadmap for Leadership Success, has over twenty-five years in senior leadership positions with world-class businesses. He is an expert in leadership transformation: shaping high-performance leaders out of highly stressed and overworked leaders. He is a serial entrepreneur, successful business coach, author, charismatic speaker, and works with leaders from small private businesses, right up to Fortune-60 size.

Antonio Garrido is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Connect with him through LinkedIn. For more information, visit the author’s website.