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The two questions great leaders ask

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  • February 18, 2016
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The two questions great leaders ask

By Chester Elton and Adrian Gostick 

Over the past twenty years, we’ve met interviewed a host of fascinating leaders all over the world. Some are truly inspiring; unfortunately, some are truly demoralizing. But frankly, most leaders fall somewhere in the middle.

But who wants to be average? Is it possible, then, to move out of the management middle and be a truly transformational leader? Yes, but it will mean a change in your leadership style.

The very best leaders we’ve studied do share one thing in common: They care about their people just as much as they care about their team’s performance. In that regard, they engage their employees in tasks with passion and an overwhelming sense of purpose, and they encourage their team members to grow and develop.

We’ve found most of these managers ask some form of two very basic questions, and they ask them frequently and with sincerity.

The first question is:

How are you doing?

We know it sounds simple, but we aren’t talking a quick “How ya doin’?” as you pass in the hall, responding with “great” as you jump on the elevator. No, we mean relevant leaders take the time to sit down with their employees and ask with pure intent: “Really, how are you doing?” Especially when they’ve noticed a change in a person’s disposition, interactions with teammates, or output. The managers then listen quietly and empathetically to the answers. Of course, they don’t ask this question every day, but when needed they don’t hesitate to visit face-to-face or put in a call if the person is remote.

A few years ago we met Catherine Cole, director of the American Express executive customer care group in Florida. She asked the “How are you doing?” question frequently of her direct reports, and also met with her skip level reports at least four times a year. With these employees, well below her on the corporate org chart, she asked a great series of follow-ups to get them to open up to the big boss: 1) Talk about your journey so far with American Express, 2) Has your experience over the past year been beneficial to your growth and progress? 3) What one or two things get you jazzed about coming to work every day? 4) What makes you want to hit the snooze button? Who wouldn’t want to work for a boss who cared like that?

All of which leads us to the second big question great leaders ask:

How can I help?

When managers take the time to listen and create a safe environment, team members eventually start to share what’s going on with their projects and even in their personal lives. These leaders start to build real relationships. The boss might not be able to solve a problem with the employee’s errant teenager—other than a sympathetic “been there”—but what they can do is roll up their sleeves and help with work challenges.

One such leader is Mike Jewellson, regional director of food and nutrition for Signature Healthcare in Kentucky. Mike told us: “As a director I can’t just sit and direct. I’m involved in 90 percent of caterings, whether setting up, or helping cook. I let my team see that I’m willing to do whatever they are willing to do. It’s not beyond me to take off my tie and wash up some pots and pans.” When we met Mike for the first time, he was with another hospital. He’d just taken over a team of 60 food and nutrition employees who had ranked among the lowest in the nation for customer courtesy, with just 1 percent approval customer courtesy scores. Gulp. Within six months of Jewellson’s arrival on the job, that food and nutrition department had skyrocketed to the 99th percentile in courtesy in a national ranking, with employee engagement scores soaring too. Does it pay to roll up your sleeves and really help? Absolutely!

Here’s the bottom line: Great leaders don’t preach to the masses, they work one-on-one with their people. They build trusting relationships. We aren’t suggesting these two questions will solve every workplace issue, but they are a great place to start.

We’d love to hear any other questions your believe are important for bosses to ask.

- gelbadmin