Ask Sweatin' Questions

This will go down as one of the hottest summers on record in many cities across North America.  People
everywhere are suffering from the extreme temperatures.  If you are a CEO you are sweating daily, though from both the temperatures and the economy.  Sometimes it seems like more than you can bear.  You want to change, but you don’t know where to start.  So you begin by talking to everyone about what you want, what they want and what you are planning to do first.

Change has to come by listening to people.  Not directing them.  It begins with a leader who spends time learning the existing culture and changing within, not despite the framework.

Why should you “sweat” the details while your executive team sits back cool and comfortable?  That’s easy.  You shouldn’t.  If you want to realise real change in your organizational structure and culture, you need to be the one making everyone around you sweat the answers.  It starts with your leadership group, management team or executive board.

What are you doing to make your executive board stretch, innovate and lose bad habits?  Are they cool and calm, while you are breaking out in a sweat?

Want to see them work up a sweat and come up with some great answers for a change? 

First realise that it’s not all about hearing you talk.  Quit squirming and blathering away about your vision and enliven your executive board with some great questions.

Quit talking to your board and get them interacting with you in a dialogue.

What kind of questions should you ask?  Ask questions that make them think.  Ask questions that make them develop ideas.  Ask Essay Questions (Stay away from “Yes/No” answers).  Ask Story Questions
(Generate great stories). 

Ask Sweatin’ Questions!

Seven Sweatin’ Questions

1.  What don’t you think customers/members like about what we are doing in our business right now?

The wisdom behind the question:  It starts everyone in the room thinking about people other than themselves.  It gets them to see your organisation from the customer’s or member’s view.  It gets them out of their cocoon – maybe for the first time. 

I asked this question of a banking group in a strategic planning session.  The leadership was totally shocked to learn what the front-line people were reporting as problems that customers were having.  One of the managers had wisely signed up for an account as a regular customer to see what the experience was like.  After three months, he still didn’t have an ATM card and many services were in limbo awaiting approval.  Needless to say, the CEO was unaware of the difficulty in simply opening an account. 

I often ask in presentations, what would happen if the president or CEO tried to call in for themselves on the customer service line?  What hoops would they have to jump through to get to a live person who could send them to…him or her?

2. What has changed in our customers’ buying habits in the past two years?

The wisdom behind the question:  This question gets everyone in the board room thinking about the changes in culture, the economy and their territory and how they have affected business recently.  It helps them start making constructive comments about the changes (good and bad) that have affected their business.  If you allow them to talk about them to the group, it begins the process of group coaching. 
They will start to help each other and more importantly, hear each other.  They will say, “It’s not just affecting me.” 

Again it focuses on the customers’ habits and expectations.  It keeps you from being the target and allows the customers’ or members’ view to remain central.  You can use this to motivate people to change their way of thinking about pricing or value-less selling.  A group of construction leaders noticed that they had more people emphasising the price points than the value of their services when we asked this question. 
That was the moment they realised their sales people were trapped in a loop of falling back on price instead of delivering value and benefits to their customers.

3. How have we become “different” to match those changes?

The wisdom behind the question:  Now you are focusing on what your organisation is doing to match changes your team has already observed in your customers and members.  This question asks, “OK, you know the problem. What are you doing to fix it?”  The finger-pointing now is turned inward.  It makes people realise that not only are their customers and members doing less business with you, we aren’t
doing anything about it.

I love this question because of the smiles I see on people’s faces, who moments ago, were proudly proclaiming how bad the customers have had it with these challenges. It forces your leadership to seek solutions, not just gripe about problems.  Now the pressure is on them to say, “Here is what I think we should do to resolve this situation for our people’s best interest.”

4. How do people feel punished by our policies or practices?

The wisdom behind the question:  This is the favourite question I ask of every board or leadership team I do strategic planning with.  Even the CEOs like this one.  If you thought your management group was customer focused before, this will target specific practices and policies that aggravate people who do business with you. 

On a call to American Express about a disputed charge, I realised that membership doesn’t have its privileges as they used to say…it has its penalties, too.  When I told this to her supervisor, the sympathetic supervisor said, “I know. I am so sorry.  Your same complaint is the top complaint we get from our all of our loyal members.”  Then why not change the policy if that is what is provoking the most negative feedback.

5. What habits are we holding on to that are holding us back?

The wisdom behind the question:  Your organisation has policies, practices, inventory (and yes, even people) that are holding you back from making a profit and achieving the results you desire.  They come across to you as necessary, but to many of your staff, employees and financial advisors as deficits.  They cost you more than they are returning to your bottom line.  They are keeping the organisation stagnant.  You think that one day they will come around, be bought by someone or come back into fashion.  They won’t…ever.  And you holding on to them is holding you back more each day that you tighten your grip. 

Free yourself.  Free your schedule of tasks that you are doing just to do them.  Eliminate meetings that serve no purpose.  Ask your team about every item on the agenda, “What purpose does this serve?” “How is it achieving the results we want?” Stand back and be prepared.  Fair warning: You may not like the answers, but it will deliver hope to your leaders that you are serious about streamlining processes, making changes and getting results.  It will also free them up to release some items and practices they have wanted to be freed from.

6. Where are the “dinosaurs” in our organisation/office/policy manual?

The wisdom behind the question:  This will begin to close the loop on the practices your customers or members dislike and what you are doing to justify yourself as an organisation.  Earlier we discussed the “dinosaurs” in your organisation.  They are extinct, but you maintain them.  Rather than taking care of a living, breathing organism you have become the curator of a museum, limited to polishing dead bones.  It is time to bury the bones. 

It is time to reinvent your policy manual (if you even have one).  Remember, most policies are in place to protect the organisation against people getting too many perks.  Your policies are probably outdated and not very friendly (either in practice or in delivery) to the people who mean the most to your bottom line…your customers and members.  They don’t care what your “manual” says.  They don’t care how you deal with everyone.  They care about how you deal with them and them alone.  Why not?  You feel the same way in every business relationship, too.

7. What are you most afraid of losing in a change or transition?

The wisdom behind the question:  Here is the “meatiest” question you can ask a group of secure leaders. 
They fear losing something in a transition.  They fear ceding control to someone else whom they don’t trust.  If you demonstrate that you are willing to release some authority to them early in the process,
they are more likely to follow your model. 

Yes, there will always be those who can’t give up the power and prestige they have worked so hard to attain, but if you talk in terms of making your customers or members primary, they will be outvoted by the majority.  Your own board probably wouldn’t come out and say it, but they like their positions and their security and don’t want to share it with anyone who has new ideas or directions.  


In the end it will be about surrendering power to avoid their/your demise.  Victor Frankl said, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” Is it time to reinvent your thinking and change the one person you have control over???  Yourself and your management style?

Good luck with your personal team changes.

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