Ideas to Read and Pass Along

Kevin & Jackie Freiberg

Facing Reality, Part 1

Do you have the courage to ask these tough questions?

Competitiveness demands a commitment to the truth and a willingness to confront the brutal facts of reality. Unfortunately, most of us are in the habit of imposing biases on our perceptions of how the world works and how our companies perform. In the absence of candid feedback it’s convenient to assume that reality is similar to our preconceived ideas. That’s why gutsy leaders actively seek to uncover the truth by asking these tough questions…

1. What do you like about working for this company? What do you dislike about it?

benfoldWhen Mike Abrashoff became captain of the U.S.S. Benfold, a $1 billion guided missile destroyer, he asked these questions of all 310 sailors. Once the crew figured out that he was seriously interested in their opinions the ideas started to flow. Over the next two years he used the answers to make the Benfold the most combat-ready ship in the Navy. Among Navy ships the Benfold has the highest retention rates, the best gunnery scores, and the most efficient operations. It won the Spokane award given to the best ship in the Pacific fleet.

2. What are the 10 dumbest things we do in this organization?

Every organization does dumb things. Jimmy Blanchard, CEO of the highly successful Synovus Financial Corporation, hosts a quarterly meeting with top leaders throughout the Synovus system. What is the purpose of the meeting? “Let’s talk about the dumb things we do around here so we don’t do them anymore.” The problem in most firms is that people don’t want to focus on the negative. They’re afraid that it will turn into a blame game and cast a dark cloud over employee morale. Synovus says, “Let’s be honest, let’s get it out in the open so we can learn from our mistakes and maybe even laugh with each other in the process!”

3. What major issues are we afraid to talk about around here?

Which is worse, to pull down the shade on problems that many people already know exist, or to confront those challenges openly before they become insurmountable? Fear can be an incredibly destructive force in an organization. It immobilizes people, it keeps critical issues from surfacing, it’s contagious, and it compounds. Fear feeds on itself. Periodically asking this question acknowledges fear and confronts it head on. It can help establish a culture where people have the freedom to think straight and talk straight.

4. If you were in charge of this company, plant, or department what would you do differently?

Where you stand determines what you see. Employees frequently get trapped in the “I’m not the CEO” mentality. It limits their creativity and causes them to feel powerless. Not only does this question force them out of that mold, it will also raise issues you haven’t considered. It is amazing what can be learned when you put people through the intellectual exercise of being in charge. Give them ownership, let them run their own show and the whole mindset changes. What emerges is a whole new set of ideas. Ask this question and you give employees a chance to tell you what’s working and what isn’t without making them feel threatened. People are honored when someone values them enough to say, “Play CEO for a day and tell us what you come up with.”

5. What make us difficult to do business with? What makes us easy to do business with?

There may be things going on in your organization that you don’t know about that create aggravation for the customer. There may be other things that you would emphasize if you only knew they had such a positive impact on the customer. How do you know if you don’t ask? If you think you knew the customer yesterday, think again. Changes in the economy, the workforce, the political landscape, and technology foster changes in the customer’s expectations—daily. Gutsy leaders don’t assume that just because the company was easy to do business with last quarter the same is true today. They are always looking for ways to uncover hidden frustrations and make the experience seamless for the customer.

6. What segment of our customer base or potential customer base are we least equipped to deal with?

For example, eighty percent of American women work outside the home. Almost 50% of them earn more than 50% of the family’s income. Tom Peters points out that over 80% of the purchasing decisions in home furnishings, vacations, new homes, banking, and health care are made by women. They now account for over 50% of all American business travelers. In addition to this, women cook, chauffer kids, run errands, workout, and take professional development classes. Are your products and services geared to this incredibly powerful buying group? Does the makeup of our board and executive team indicate that this customer segment is important to us? Are our products and services designed to save time for this influential buyer?

7. What are the specific preferences of our top 100 or 1000 customers?

What information do we need to build a stronger relationship with our customers? Do we know as much about our customers as our competition does? What strategic decisions have we made based on the profiles of our best customers?

Customer relationship management is not a passing fad. We’re living in a time when customers want to know that the product and service experience is specifically designed for them. Nail down their preferences, give them an opportunity to teach YOU about THEM and you earn the right to continue to play the game. Fail to mine the data and garner the information that will help you build a relationship and you can plan on getting creamed!

8. Do we justify better performance and productivity among our competitors by higher wages or has the competition built a culture that values people more than we do?

It’s easy to say, “Our competitors have an advantage because they pay more.” That may be true, but the research indicates it would have to be a lot more. Few people are willing to walk across the street for a minimal pay increase. However, they will walk for a more exciting place to work that genuinely cares about its people. Offer people an opportunity to do things that are memorable and heroic and you will get their attention rapidly. Gusty leaders see culture as one of their strongest competitive weapons. Is the real answer to turn our culture into an extraordinary magnet for talent and a powerful catalyst for productivity? (Read Facing Reality Part 2.)