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ASK, DON’T TELL
An E-Book by Gary B. CohenBased On The Book
JUST ASK LEADERSHIPWhy Great Leaders AlwaysAsk the Right Questions
by Gary B. CohenIllustrations by Corey Sauer
Whose Decision Is It?
page 6 What Is My Guiding Question?
page 8 How Does Your Ego Get in the Way of Leading?
How Do I Demonstrate I Am Listening?
Leadership Motivates Action?
page 14 Why Shouldn’t I Try to Solve Everyones Problem?
As President and Co-founder of ACI Telecentrics, Inc., Gary Cohen grew the company from two people to 2,200 employees and reached $32 million in sales at the company’s peak. ACI grew at an average compounded rate of over fifty percent for almost thirteen years. Currently, he is Partner and Co-founder of CO2 Partners, LCC, operating as an executive coach and consultant. His international client list runs a wide range of organizations—from small entrepreneurial companies to multi-billion-dollar enterprises. His book Just Ask Leadership is being published by McGraw Hill and will be released September of 2009.
Gary received his B.S. from the University of Minnesota, where he triple-majored in International Business, Intercultural Communications, and International Political Science. Prior to attending Harvard Business School (Owner President Manager Program), he attended Covey Leadership Center and Disney Creative Leadership workshops. He has served on numerous boards, including Outward Bound National Advisory Board, All Kinds of Minds, Shalom Home Alliance, Alzheimer Board of Governors, American Teleservices Association, I.C. Systems (one of the nation’s largest collection agencies), and Richfield Bank. He has been a member of TEC (The Executive Committee) and written or been recognized in articles for Wall Street Journal Europe, Wall Street Journal Asia, Financial Daily News, USA Today, Washington Post, Business Week, Wall Street Reporter, Venture Magazine, Paul Pioneer Press, and Profits Journal. He has been a columnist for JobDig, writing exclusively on the topic of leadership. Among his many accomplishments, he was an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award Finalist (Inc. Magazine) and Henry Crown Fellow (Aspen Institute); in addition, ACI was recognized as one of Venture Magazine’s Top 10 Best Performing Businesses and Business Journal’s 25 Fastest Growing Small Public Companies.Contact Garygary@co2partners.com CO2 Partners Web Site
ASK, DON’T TELL
Create Better Decisions: Whose Decision Is It?
An E-Book by Gary B. Cohen
As clients meet with me to discuss leadership, inevitably the conversation turns to decision-making. Making decisions is one of the most taxing job responsibilities that leaders have. In my experience, leaders suffer more than they should because they make too many decisions. Too often, they fail to ask, “Whose decision is it?” or “Who is the decider?”
When leaders take the burden of responsibility too far, they either want to protect others from making tough decisions or they want to extend their power. The result is often poor decision-making because these leaders do not have sufficient information. And the team members who should have made the decision do not gain valuable experience. Instead of adhering to the old Harry S. Truman adage, “The buck stops here,” these leaders should do a better job of clarifying job responsibilities, trusting their team members to make good decisions, and then holding them accountable.
Lord Carrington, whom I knew for a brief time, was minister of the British Defense Department during the Falkland Islands war. The war was launched because of a mistake a radio operator made on one of the frigates out at sea. Lord Carrington was obligated via ministerial responsibility (the British version of “The buck stops here”) to resign. After all, if
ASK, DON’T TELL An E-Book by Gary B. Cohen
he was doing his job, all those under his command must be doing their jobs, too, no matter how far removed—including the radio operator. This practice is outdated, in part, because it takes accountability away from the person who is directly responsible. And it results in leaders who are either too controlling or unjustly blamed for the bad decisions of others.
“Perhaps you can help me with a problem I’m having, Gary,” Todd, President of one of the largest financial services company on the east coast, said as we sat down to coffee. “I have this woman who works for me. She’s grown her department by thirty percent in the last year. But she hasn’t been showing up at the weekly executive meetings even when she’s in the office. Her boss thinks everything’s fine and keeps citing the thirty-percent figure, but the competition in that industry segment is scoring even higher. Plus, her department is the doorway into my company for many customers.” I asked Todd what exactly the problem was. He said, “Her!”
I asked, “Are you sure?” He looked at me quizzically. “You’re saying the problem lies with me?” I asked him whom she reported to. He said, “She reports to Dave.” I then asked, “So whose problem is it?” Begrudgingly, he said, “Dave’s.” We then investigated why he thought it was his problem to begin with. This employee did not show up for Dave’s meeting, but since it was Todd’s company and he had heard complaints, he felt it reflected badly on him. Since I don’t have an emotional investment, it was easier for me to see who was the decider here than it was for Todd. And, since Dave is invested in this woman in many ways that Todd is not, Todd might be able to supply some perspective to Dave that he is currently missing.
As a leader, Todd shouldn’t ignore the fact that he had heard complaints about this particular employee. Instead, he must hold Dave accountable for his people. Once Dave is alerted to the issue, it is no longer Todd’s issue. If Dave fails to act, however, then Todd must confront a new issue: Dave’s failure to manage his team members.
Since Todd is impacted by the failure of the employee to attend his meeting, I suggested a strategy that helps set clear boundaries. I encouraged him to cancel the next meeting if one or more people did not attend. I find it hard to employ shaming tactics, but, at the same time, they can be extremely effective. In this case, the message would be loud and clear: everyone’s participation is critical to the process. And, based upon my experience, I doubt Dave would have to cancel more than one meeting.Employee empowerment begins with leaders asking themselves four words over and over: “Whose decision is it?”
ASK, DON’T TELL
What Is My Guiding Question?
An E-Book by Gary B. Cohen
“Ohm........” Meditators use sounds like this one to help them find peace, harmony, and direction. These sounds are repeated over and over again until they become ingrained. In the meditation process, the day’s irritations-sirens, horns, slips, spills, criticisms, etc.-slip away.
Guiding questions can have a similar harmonic effect. They can make sorting through distractions and options much easier. Not surprisingly, many leaders find them invaluable. Greg Farrell, President and CEO of Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound, said to me, “You know, Gary, the question I am wrestling with is not should I work with a guiding question, but what guiding question should we work with when setting up each expeditionary learning model?”
When I decided to write a book, I knew I needed a guiding question. What was I looking to answer? After much thought, I settled on, “Why is it that exceptional leaders spend so much time asking questions?” Now I can always come back to the question and ask, “Am I writing the right material to answer that question?” Writing a book, like building a business or organizing an event, is filled with so many interesting distractions. I wanted to read every book on leadership and the art of questioning. I wanted to interview as many leaders
ASK, DON’T TELL An E-Book by Gary B. Cohen
as possible. Without my guiding question, I might have been redirected by my research and curiosity and wound up writing a book on pet grooming or, worse, a forty-volume encyclopedia. Instead, when I reached a crossroad, I returned to my guiding question. No matter how interesting or important the new information was, I made sure it helped answer my overarching question. If it did not, I set it aside or filed it away for future projects.
When you are writing a book, the consequences of your decisions are largely yours alone to suffer. In an organization, many more lives are affected. Do not make your subordinates follow your every whim. What overarching question are you trying to answer? Once you have settled on a question, let it guide you. Repeat it daily like a meditation sound. And, periodically, ask, “Am I asking the right question?” Keep asking this question until your heart and mind come together.For more, see Twenty Questions for Leaders to Ask by Gary Cohen at BusinessWeek.com.How Does Your Ego
Get in the Way of Leading?Why is it important to lead with questions?
Why this strategy over others?
Organizations are made up of people. Like you, every employee has his/her own goals, aspirations, concerns, experiences, and dreams. And each of us has an ego. The ego allows us to believe that we are capable of performing many tasks successfully. In all likelihood, your ego iswhat propelled you to a leadership position. Your great effort and desire to succeed led to major accomplishments and accolades.
Here comes the paradox. Egos can vault you into a leadership position, but as a leader, you must set your ego aside. Your ego can prevent you from being an effective and truly great leader.
Before you became a leader, you likely operated as an individual contributor. You used your creativity and resourcefulness to meet objectives: a reduction of resources, an increase in quality, or an increase in revenue. If you asked questions, they were about how you could accomplish a specific task. In general, however, your ego discouraged you from asking questions and disliked having to follow orders. Egos want to accomplish and achieve. And, egos crave recognition from others.
Every time you accomplished a task and met the objective, your career moved forward and your standing in the organization or community grew. With each accomplishment, your ego grew, too. asked fewer questions and provided more answers. After all, with your success, others came to you as an oracle of information-perhaps even your boss or your boss’s boss. You were in control.
As a leader, you must relinquish control. You must shrink your ego and concentrate on your altruism Your career advancement is no longer task oriented. Leadership is about allowing others the chance to achieve and flourish. You advance as a leader only when you place your employees’ egos above your own. The heads of many organizations are not able to do this. Their companies may still succeed based upon their drive for individual success, but they are not true leaders or one thing, their employees will not be inspired to reach their full potential because they know they will not receive full credit for their efforts.
So, as a leader, why should you lead with questions? Because questions confer power and control to your employees. It allows their egos a chance to shine. And you, they, and the organization will all be better served.For more, see Just Ask Leadership review at BecomeABetterLeader.com.How Do I Demonstrate I Am Listening?
I have spoken to many leaders and the consensus is that listening to the answer is more important than asking the perfect question. Listening intently builds trust between you and the speaker. With that in mind, here are some tips to improve your listening:
1. Don’t let your mind wander. Zen masters can keep their minds completely focused on one thought or conversation, but most of us can not. We might, for instance, latch onto one piece of information that the speaker has said. We grip it tightly and plan our response, rather than simply bookmarking this information and continuing to listen. In doing so, the speaker will see in our eyes that we have tuned out. Trust, confidence, and motivation will spiral downward.
2. Don’t interrupt after asking a question. Leaders often have Type-A personalities, so they want to complete others’ sentences. In all likelihood, they could probably do a better job of relaying the information, but that is not the goal of listening. Out-thinking your subordinates or showing off is not leadership. Patience is. Allow the speaker all the time in the world to provide you with an answer and to ask follow-up questions. Doctors at the renowned Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota pride themselves on spending a lot of time listening to their patients. Many practitioners ask questions and filter out most of what the patient says (listening only for symptoms they believe to be present), paying little mind to the patients’ questions. Those questions can be very revealing especially if the patient is suffering from a rare disorder. Good doctors and good leaders have patience and make better decisions as a result.
3. Don’t ask a question then give an answer to see if you were right. I was in a coaching exercise with a CEO. He summoned his accountant and asked her, “What are our revenue and net profits going to be this year?” Before she could answer, he said, “$5 million and $1 million respectfully.” He clearly wanted to demonstrate that he was aware of the numbers to me and to her. This was about ego and it did nothing to build his leadership within the organization. Each time we do one of our team members’ jobs our leadership power is taken away. What’s her incentive to try to answer his questions in the future? Wasn’t he communicating that her time must not be valuable if she was going to be called into the office just so he could ask and answer his own question? Does she now think he has nothing better to do with his time? Actually, these are not assumptions. This is what I discovered when I spoke with her afterward.
4. Be attuned to body language-your own and the speaker’s. Maintain eye contact. Sit up straight and lean forward. Don’t communicate disinterest or impatience by tapping a pen against the desk. And try to pick up on nonverbal cues that the speaker is transmitting. John Urban, Former CEO, President and Chairman of Pioneer Hi-Bred International looks for “Dissonance.” When there is a disagreement or a gap between the work that was performed and the work that was expected to be performed, he pays particular attention to body language-failure to make eye contact, lowered or trailing off voices, etc. He then tries to imagine the question the speaker least wants him to ask. Then he asks it.
Interestingly, John finds it easier to listen for dissonance and ask the right questions if the organization’s vision, plan, and goals are clear. It makes sense. After all, if you know what key the symphony is in, it is much easier to detect a wrong note.If you follow these four tips, you will be a good listener. And you will be pleasantly surprised to find out how prepared you subordinates are for their meeting with you.Leadership Motivates Action?How do I generate a sense of urgency?
When the Spanish conqueror, Cortez, ordered his crew to fight the Aztecs in Mexico, he met resistance. After all, his crew was grossly outnumbered. What was the incentive? Once they were ashore, Cortez set fire to his own ships. With that act, he changed the question from “Why should we attack the natives?” to “How will we win the fight?” The incentive was now eminently clear to crew members-saving their own lives. They no longer had a Plan B to fall back on. Interestingly, the Aztecs, who witnessed the burning of the ships, fled in fear. They did not want any part of a fight against a foe that confident of victory.
When Janet Froetscherv was hired to be executive director of United Way of Chicago, she was given the Herculean task of bringing together fifty-four separate United Ways in the Greater Chicago area. This had been an objective since the 1960s, but had never been accomplished. Each organization stood behind their own independent and noble causes, unwilling to put aside differences and centralize power. Janet didn’t set fire to any ships, but, like Cortez, she took away the escape routes for these independent organizations. She successfully lobbied the support of UWA to to pull the charters of each United Way, and she threatened to pull the business support of those that didn’t cooperate with the unification effort.
Once there were no escape routes for the individual United Ways, they put their attention and effort toward accomplishing the goal. Janet had changed the overarching question from “Why should we consolidate?” to “How will we consolidate?” It helped, of course, that these organizations had a larger incentive-helping their constituents. CEOs and board members had to give up their positions, so the work was not easy, but all parties came to the table and hashed out a workable plan. The result-the consolidation generated savings of over $3 million dollars, which fell directly to the people they served. This documented efficiency (they saved twenty four cents on every dollar), in turn, made it easier for United Way Chicago to generate more funding from donors.
If you cut off escape routes, all attention and effort will go to the goal. The question will change from “Why should we...?” to “How will we...?” The morale of your team members will likely be higher, though, if you have a noble goal, as Janet did, rather than threatening your crew’s lives, as Cortez did!For more, see review of Just Ask Leadership at Survival Leadership.Why shouldn’t I try to solve everyones problem?
People often walk into my office with a problem. If I am in a good place, I will ask many questions and help them solve their own problem, so they can feel good about themselves. If I am in a bad place (low self-esteem, for example), I will ask many different questions that would help me solve the problem for them, so I can feel good about myself. The nature of the questions change because the same questions that would help me solve the problem may be very different from the questions that they would need to hear.
When we are solving someone else’s problem, we are likely to need all the background on the subject. After a lengthy factfinding mission, we will use our own experience as a filter to assess if we have seen this sort of problem before and try to formulate a solution that we have used successfully in the past. Unfortunately, this process is usually doomed to failure. Why? Because we can’t possibly know as much as the person with the problem.
If I asked you to describe yesterday to me, you would probably summarize your day in about five minutes. If you are a good storyteller, you might go off on a tangent for five more minutes. If pressed, you might be able to add another twenty minutes of detail. The likelihood of you taking an entire day to
ASK, DON’T TELL An E-Book by Gary B. Cohen
describe what you did, saw, observed, and thought would be remote at best. Okay, let’s return to the person with the problem. No matter how many questions you ask, they will not be able to effectively or efficiently relay to you all of the knowledge or information that they have on the matter. The only person truly qualified to make the decision is the one who lives in the situation every day.
Lester Crown is Chairman of Henry Crown and Company. This is an investment firm that owns or has stakes in a large collection of business assets. These holdings include stakes in General Dynamic, Maytag, Hilton, Alltel as well as the New York Yankees and the Chicago Bulls. As a mentor, he helped cure me of my desire to solve others’ problems. He told me that you can never know as much as a person who spends forty-plus hours a week on the subject. And they can never relay to you all that they know. Want more proof? Has this ever happened to you? You are trying to make a decision for your subordinate and each time you start to formulate a solution they say, “Yes, that would work BUT I forgot to tell you about....” Be prepared for a lifetime full of these stops, starts, and stutters if you don’t mend your ways.
So, if you are not the right person to make the decision and yet you are the one ultimately responsible for the outcome of the decision, how can you best assist your subordinates? Ask questions that help unblock them and give them perspective, not bring you up to speed. Ask them to explain the problem in light of the organization’s overall goal. Ask them how their goal is aligned with the organization’s overall goal. Ask them what information they need to solve the problem.For more, read Gary Cohen’s thoughts on accountability in Investor’s Business Daily.
“This may sound like a stupid question but...”Sound familiar?
In his brilliant new book Just Ask Leadership: Why Great Managers Always Ask The Right Questions successful business entrepreneur and Leadership Coaching Guru Gary B. Cohen practices precisely what he preaches from the turn of page one through each of the 178 following revealing and inspirational pages.
Are you a “Know” leader or a “Don’t Know” leader?
Do you trust your own judgment instinctively?
Are you getting the best, most passionate performance from your team? Do you spend enough time helping them (and ultimately you) succeed?
Also by this author
This dynamic new book asks (and helps YOU answer) these and many, many more thought-provoking questions.Questions that can uncover the qualities that can take you from being a good leader to a great leader. And along the way perhaps reveal the roadblocks and speed bumps that could be preventing it.Who exactly is Just Ask for? Anybody who leads ~ from small businesses to Fortune 1000 giants. What do they all have in common? They are in a position where they are expected “to get things done.”
Whether you’re a mid-level manager or the firm’s CEO, your ability to “get things done” impacts the value and the future of your organization. And in Just Ask you’ll hear directly from a fascinating and wide range of leaders from companies of all sizes and types how this book has opened their eyes and unleashed their inner ability to direct, empower, motivate and move their teams to achieve clearly articulated, achievable goals.Are you ready to get some great things done in your life, for your company or your team? Then don’t waste another moment wondering. Order your copy of Just Ask today and let Gary Cohen open the door to your success. One smart question at a time.
ASK, DON’T TELLAn E-Book by Gary B. Cohen
© August 2009 Just Ask Leadership.