78 Important Questions Every Leader Should Ask and Answer


"Great leaders have many talents, but one critical skill -- often unrecognized -- is the ability to ask and answer questions. This unique book offers 78 questions that leaders at all levels need to ask and answer both inside and outside the organization.

Leaders who master this question-response technique will gain much useful information about what is really going on in their businesses, as well as the admiration of employees, customers, and others with whom they interact.

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"Great leaders have many talents, but one critical skill -- often unrecognized -- is the ability to ask and answer questions. This unique book offers 78 questions that leaders at all levels need to ask and answer both inside and outside the organization.

Leaders who master this question-response technique will gain much useful information about what is really going on in their businesses, as well as the admiration of employees, customers, and others with whom they interact.

The questions and answers cover a range of common and uncommon situations, including: the need to connect employees' efforts to company goals; layoffs, business downturns, and mergers; personal crises of employees; coaching and mentoring sessions; and customer retention. The book even includes advice on answering questions when the answer is ""I don't know"" or ""I can't tell you."" With worksheets in each chapter, it prepares leaders to ask important questions of:

* Customers (""Why do you do business with our competition?"")
* Employees (""What's a recent management decision you didn't understand?"")
* And even themselves (""What do I want to be remembered for?"")"

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Editorial Reviews

It provides a catalyst for creating an environment where leaders and their teams understand each other better, trust each other more and work more efficiently and energetically toward common goals.
The Midwest Book Review
worthwhile book for leaders and aspiring leaders-to-read, absorb, and keep handy.
Dayton Ohio News
should be read by all levels of an organization because it will establish the basis for an ongoing honest dialogue between senior management, managers and those in the ranks.
This resource supplies executives and managers with specific questions to ask of employees ("What is a recent management decision you didn't understand?"), customers ("Why do you do business with our competition?"), and others, and reveals how to encourage and answer questions on decision making, the future of a particular industry, and job security. Clarke-Epstein is a consultant, seminar leader, and author of several books. She is past president of the National Speakers Association. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780814474143
  • Publisher: AMACOM
  • Publication date: 4/28/2006
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 449,788
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.55 (d)

Meet the Author

Chris Clarke-Epstein (Wausau, WI) is a consultant, seminar leader, and author of several books, including The Instant Trainer. A noted public speaker, she is past President of the National Speakers Association.

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Table of Contents

"Chapter 1: Questions Leaders Need to Ask Themselves

Chapter 2: Questions Leaders Need to Ask Customers

Chapter 3: Questions Leaders Need to Ask Employees about the Business

Chapter 4: Deeper Questions Leaders Need to Ask Employees

Chapter 5: Questions to Ask in Special Situations

Chapter 6: Questions Leaders Need to Answer

Chapter 7: Answers For Special Situations

Chapter 8: Simple, Tough Answers

Chapter 9: Final Questions

Appendix: Good Questions from Other Leaders"

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First Chapter

78 Important Questions Every Leader Should Ask and Answer

By Chris Clarke-Epstein


Copyright © 2002 Chris Clarke-Epstein
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8144-7162-5

Chapter One

Questions Leaders Need to Ask Employees About the Business

So far, you've been considering asking questions of yourself and your customers. Important work to be sure, but as a leader, you also need to focus your attention on the people you lead. Asking questions of them is the core of this book.

The easiest and best place to focus your early questions for your employees is around the business. It's amazing how many well-educated, fairly successful employees know a lot about their area of responsibility and virtually nothing about what goes on in the department down the hall. IT people don't understand the salespeoples' challenges. Marketing types take mental vacations when profit and loss statements are discussed. The packer in the shipping department doesn't even realize the company has a research department.

One of my favorite questions to ask a new client is "Do you give tours of your organization to outside groups?" When the answer is yes, I follow it up with "Is that tour, in greater depth, part of your new employee orientation program?" We're not even going to talk about the number of people who stare blankly at the mention of an employee orientation program, but a yes to the second question is fairly uncommon. That being the case, I can only assume that there are many people working in organizations without a clear understanding of the business they're in. That feels risky to me. What's a leader to do? Asking the questions in this chapter is a logical place to start.

Leaders, by their openness to questioning, give followers the confidence to pursue their dreams. - Andrew Finlayson, American author and journalist

You'll ask these questions for two reasons. First, to understand the depth (or shallowness) of the knowledge people have about your organization as a whole. Second, to provide you with an opportunity to impart knowledge, correct misinformation, and encourage exploration-in other words, to adopt the role of teacher for a while. Teaching, in the non-classroom sense, is a major part of a leader's job, and these questions will provide you with the opening to play that role.

Caution: Teaching does not mean lecturing. Asking an employee one of these questions, getting a vague or confused answer, and proceeding to deliver an on-the-spot lecture in an authoritative tone will not get you the results you desire. Teaching means thinking about and delivering the information that the student needs in a way that will be meaningful to them. The answers to these questions may start a brief dialogue, a one-on-one walk through a department with narration, or an invitation to a representative from another department to a team meeting for an old-fashioned show-and-tell. The purpose of these questions is to help you discover what needs to happen next.

If this is your first real step into being a leader who asks questions, go back and read A Warning at the beginning of this book. There are a few things you need to think about before you burst out of your office looking for a poor unsuspecting employee to question. That section will help you remember what they are.

13. How do we make money?

A simple question. "We sell things." "We make things and sell them." "We publish books." If you work in a retail or manufacturing environment, those answers should be pretty obvious. What if you provide a service? "We help people solve problems." "We fix things that break." "We show movies." Surface answers all. Printing books, selling something, fixing someone's equipment allows an organization to present an invoice but does not ensure that anyone makes any money.

Most people have never been taught how business works, a fact that has fueled the Open-Book Management philosophy. In an article in the June 1995 issue of Inc., John Case describes the three elements that make Open-Book Management different.

1. Every employee sees-and learns to understand-the company's financials, along with all the other numbers that are critical to tracking the business's performance.

2. Employees learn that, whatever else they do, part of their job is to move those numbers in the right direction.

3. Employees have a direct stake in the company's success.

Employees in an Open-Book Management organization know how their organization makes money. But, I can hear you saying, "We're not an Open-Book company and I don't have the authority to make us one. True. But you can do your homework by asking this question of the members of your team, evaluating the responses, and establishing a plan to help your team see the big picture when it comes to the bottom line.

This could be scary if it occurs to you that you don't actually know the answer to this question yourself. Don't use that as an excuse to not ask the question. Use it as a reason to ask it of someone who knows and learn from them.

14. How does your work contribute to our success?

Years ago I was a salesperson for a large insurance company. Sitting in a client's office (an unhappy client's office) I asked to use the phone to call the home office to get the answer to his very pointed question. As I dialed our toll-free number, engaging in silent prayer as I pushed each button, it occurred to me that I hadn't ever used the main toll-free number before. It was picked up on the third ring and answered by a cheerful person who was chewing gum so loudly I could almost see her jaw working. I was so glad I had dialed rather than my client.

On the way back to my office, I envisioned the confrontation she and I were going to have. I was going to tell her, in no uncertain terms, how unprofessional her behavior was. Chewing gum into the ears of the hundreds of callers she must talk to in a day-what was she thinking? Since it was a thirty-mile drive back, I had time to think through my initial plan and found it lacking. I needed to talk to her leader. No one, it seemed to me, had helped her understand the importance of her job. When she answered the phone, she represented the entire organization to the person on the other end of the line. I was pretty certain that had never occurred to her. Her leader had never asked her how she envisioned her contribution to the success of the entire company.

As a leader, it is fundamental to your job that each person you lead, whether they're accountants or janitors, understands that they play a crucial part in your organization's success. If you don't know how to explain that, or worse, don't believe that statement is true, stop calling yourself a leader. It is the leader's job to create the context in which each member of their team does their work. You need to explain it in the beginning, watch for understanding in the daily work, and reward it on a regular basis.

I talked to the receptionist's leader about the gum chewing. His blank-stare response helped me understand her behavior. I started telling my clients to call in directly to my administrative assistant when they needed to talk to someone in the company. She never chewed gum. I asked her lots of questions-this one on her first day.

15. How could we save money?

Back to the money stuff. Well, one could argue that most of business is about the money stuff, but asking about the money often gets you to something more valuable. This question does that. Leaders ask this question to investigate, challenge, and assign responsibility. They use it to investigate the forgotten areas within their control but not in their view, to challenge people to think for themselves, and to let people know that they are expected to engage their brains on the job.

Look at it this way. Pretend you don't do the grocery shopping in your household. In fact, you very seldom even go into a grocery store. The balance in your checking account is running lower than usual, and you notice that the checks made out to the grocery store represent a significant percentage of your monthly expenditures. So you sit down and develop a strategy to lower your grocery cost and present your plan to the family shopper for implementation. If you had to guess, how's that going to work for you?

Okay, try this approach. You catch the shopper as you walk through the kitchen and say, "You're spending way too much at the grocery store. I expect to see smaller checks in the future." And as you walk out of the room you add, "By the way don't let the quality of our meals suffer." Is that better?

Please tell me you didn't think that either of these approaches would work well. Please tell me that, as you read the last two paragraphs, you were shaking your head and grinning. Unfortunately, we act that way at home way too often. This behavior (as expressed about grocery shopping, punishment for children, and other areas too numerous to mention) has far-reaching implications-ask anyone you know who's gone through a divorce. Don't kid yourself. If you do it at home, you do it at work.

The problem with this behavior (in case you're not certain) is presuming that you know better than the person closest to the issue does. When you ask about saving the company money, you send a message that you expect and value your employees' expertise because they're the ones who do the work, day in and day out. Of course, the reasoning goes, they have ideas and I want-no, need-to hear them. The more you ask this question, the better the answers you get will be.

16. How could you make your job more effective?

I don't believe I've ever been asked this question. The closest I ever got was on a performance review form that had Where do you see yourself in five years? as the last question on the bottom of the last page. Silly me, I took it seriously. I thought about the work I was doing, the work I'd like to be doing, the problems and concerns expressed by our customers and developed a mini job description and envisioned myself in it. When my boss read it he said to me, "You can't want to want to do that." I could have handled a "You can't do that," answer, but I walked away from that performance review muttering, "You can't tell me what I want to do!"

What a different experience that would have been if he had only said, "This is an interesting proposal. What made you think of it?" I would have gladly shared the frustration-mine and my customers'-that made my job difficult. There were things he could have helped me do, right away, to become more effective and to make our clients happier, without creating a new job description.

Questions are powerful, and this is a great one. Issues that appear small from a leader's vantage point can be enormous barriers from the employee's. The people on your team may know what needs to happen to make their jobs more effective, but they may not know how to make the change. Helping someone think through those ideas and then, when appropriate, breaking down the barriers that hinder implementation, is a leader's job. But how can you break a barrier if you don't know it's there?

Ask this question more than once and you'll begin to see the quality of the thinking and the depth of caring about outcomes your people have. Working with them to eliminate the organizational barriers to trying these ideas will benefit you both.

17. What's the most important thing you know about our customers?

Every successful organization I've encountered, as a consultant or as a consumer, is passionate about their customers. When people in an organization hear their leaders at all levels talking about their customers at all times, it's easy for them to get the message that customers are important.

But talking about customers isn't enough. Ever notice how fast you can mentally turn someone off when you decide that what they're talking about doesn't apply to you? It's amazing to me how many people believe that if the words "customer service" aren't in their job description, customers aren't their responsibility. I decided recently that I wouldn't return to a particular restaurant because of misleading menu copy. The last complaint I heard about an e-business was over their packaging materials. Menu copywriters and purchasers of packaging materials are examples of people who may not realize that they are responsible for customer relationships. Leaders who ask questions about customers help people in all positions understand that learning the needs and wants of customers is everyone's job.

So, the questions you ask about customers direct, remind, and encourage your people to get and stay curious about your customers. The answers you get from your staff will provide a virtually unlimited supply of information to act on. Answers to this question will fall into four categories.

1. People will not be able to answer. Don't panic. This response tells you that you and your leadership team have some work to do. Some people will need to be reminded that they have a responsibility to understand their customers. Some people will need to learn the concept of serving internal customers. Some people will need help to see how their work links to the work of others within the organization to ultimately serve your external customers.

2. People's answers will be wrong. Don't get mad. This is a perfect time for a follow-up question. What leads you to believe this? would be a good possibility. People may have been given incorrect information, may have jumped to a conclusion from a single encounter, or may be relying on old data. Helping people learn their customer responsibilities and fostering continued dialogue can clear up this misinformation.

3. People's answers will confirm things you already know. Don't get complacent. These responses, while comfortable, need to be looked at carefully. Do you really know your customers well or are you collectively operating on old data? Funny how one question leads to another, isn't it?

4. People's answers will surprise you with insights you've never had. Don't be embarrassed. These are the most exciting answers of all. Insights are a function of viewing the status quo with new eyes. If you lead an organization filled with people who consistently scan their environment, think about what they see, and draw insightful conclusions ... well, things hardly get better than that!

18. What's something we could offer to our customers?

The best time to ask this question is when you're talking to a customer. The next best time to ask this question is when you're talking to someone on your team who regularly interacts with your customers. This is a question designed to generate ideas-lots of ideas from many sources. So your job with this question is to ask it of as many people as you can, as often as you can.

The worst possible position to be in when it comes to ideas is to have too few of them. That's why the primary rule of brainstorming is to amass quantity, not force quality.


Excerpted from 78 Important Questions Every Leader Should Ask and Answer by Chris Clarke-Epstein Copyright © 2002 by Chris Clarke-Epstein. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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