I was recently reminded of a story about Alan Mulally. One September in 2006, he walked into the offices of the legendary car manufacturer, Ford Motor Company, to assume the role of president and CEO. Before this point, he had been the chief that turned Boeing around from lackluster performance, and Ford was hoping he would deliver the same kind of magic to Ford.
At the time, Ford was on the brink of bankruptcy and things were grim for the American auto-maker. As he reflected in a subsequent interview, “In September ’06, when I arrived, the first forecast I saw for profitability was a $17 billion loss. And we achieved it.”*
Remarkably, the first meeting he had with his senior team produced a different picture for Mulally. During the meeting, Mulally patiently sat through presentations where senior company executives presented reports that looked great. Everyone, it seemed, was hitting their targets. He couldn’t believe it.
He then reminded them that they had wholly succeeded–at losing billions of dollars.
He then asked them to try again.
Finally, one executive spoke up and began to provide Mulally with the less than rosy picture, which happened to be the real and raw truth. The executive then asked for help.
What do you think happened next?
Do you think Mulally ripped into the executive?
On the contrary, he stood up and applauded the person who dared to tell him the truth.
The Most Valuable Player
As a CEO of multiple brands, I don’t want to hear from my team about how good we’re doing. Nothing is perfect, and I know it. I want to be challenged and want everyone on my team to do better, and the only way that happens is if all of us hear the truth. The most valuable player on my team is not the top salesperson, it’s the person who dares to bring ideas to the table where he or she sees room for improvement.
What Would You Have Done?
If you were faced with a turn-around situation of any kind and you walked into your first meeting as Mulally did years ago, what would you have done? The reality is that good management practice begins with the leader. Would you have done what Mulally did and publicly support the person that spoke up or would you have done something different, like shoot the messenger? Unfortunately, I’ve seen it happen too often. The best teams don’t only focus on what the leadership wants to hear; they trust in their leaders and the environment that allows them to speak about what’s not working so it can be improved.
Best Strategy to Make People Speak Up
Want to know what’s one of the best things you can do if you’re a manager and want your team to be frank and candid with you? Create the space and environment that fosters collaboration and discussion. That means that as a manager, you have to talk less and listen more. If someone brings you a challenge or an area in need of improvement, listen to what this person has to say. And, then ask questions.
I’ve been in sales for almost my entire life, and the best sales professionals and also leaders understand that listening is one of the best skills they can cultivate. However, along with being open to what your team has to say, you also want to dig deeper so you can gain a thorough understanding of an issue and perhaps even help develop strategic solutions. You can accomplish this by asking first, second and third level questions and you don’t have to know sales to get to the heart of the matter.
First, Second and Third Level Questions
When you’re presented with new information, get in the habit of asking questions and listen carefully to the responses. First level questions help you understand the situation and clarify the issue. They are top-line questions, that deal with what, when and how? Second level questions go a little deeper and are follow-up questions and primarily deal with why. These questions are asking for insight into why decisions were made. Finally, third level questions address emotion: fear of missing out or desiring reward. These questions are excellent to ask when you’re trying to understand the emotional barrier that has prevented a solution to a problem, such as a direct report that does not want to go around his manager when he has reported a problem, but the manager has not addressed it. A leader can uncover these emotions (and drivers for action and inaction) by saying things like, “If I were to look at this program for myself, do you think I’d see what you see?” Another one could be, “If you were given everything you needed to make sure the job got done, how would you do it and what would you need to get the job done?”
If you’re a manager, ask yourself if you’re the kind of leader who–had you been in Mulally’s place–shot the messenger when the person spoke up or if you would have listened so you can foster a business environment that supports transparency, accountability, trust, and teamwork. Get yourself in the habit of listening more and asking more in-depth questions, and it will go a long way toward helping you achieve excellent results.