Ask a Question, Avoid the Battle

January 28, 2008

Ask a questionOne of my best friends is a senior vice president for one of the world’s largest travel companies. He was recruited to do for them what he has done for three other organizations over the past five years: install a unique marketing system that increases revenues by hundreds of millions per year. Despite his impressive track record, starting up a new business unit within a monolithic company presents considerable challenges. He has to dance with the elephants and swim with the sharks to get his goals met—while constantly bumping up against bureaucracy and fiefdoms.

When we talk, every week or so, he tells me of his struggles. When he tells his boss, subordinates, or peers what he wants or needs from them in order to achieve his goals, he often meets resistance. “What if you asked them a question instead?” I respond. “What would that question be?” he wonders. This is where true leaders roll up their sleeves and earn their money. We discuss the nuances of the problems for ten to twenty minutes (people involved, roles, company mission, situation specifics, etc.) until he comes to clarity about what the right question would be. I then ask him to imagine what the reaction of those involved would have been. He pauses and says, “They would have gone along with it without a fight. I wouldn’t have had to explain my position over and over and demonstrate how this would best serve the company.”

Recently, he presented a detailed plan of how the payment system was going to bill the consumer for the travel program. He estimated that the annual revenue for this program would be in the hundreds of millions of dollars; it was critical to the overall success of the business. When the accounting department saw the plan, their reaction was “I’m sorry, but you’ll have to delay the plans for this project. We’ll need to add too many staff to our department to deal with the increase in volume because our new billing system isn’t online yet.” He was boiling inside when he got this message. Picture Popeye with steam whistling out of his ears and corncob pipe.

He was ready to hit the hallways of mahogany row to make his case with the CFO and CEO. He started imagining what he was going to say. He has done this before and eventually wins the day, but not without a strong emotional cost and some lost relationships. Nobody likes to lose a battle, even if (sometimes especially if) they are on the same team.

This time, however, he paused and recalled my motto: Ask, Don’t Tell. Instead of putting together a PowerPoint show demonstrating the cost delays to this revenue stream and making a case for how important this is for the corporation, he simply wrote a short email to the accounting department. It read, “How many more staff will you need to add?” Their response: “Only two additional employees.” End of conflict. The CFO would never bring such a paltry inconvenience up to the CEO to block this revenue stream. My friend learned that asking questions not only helps motivate employees, it can prevent intra-company battles.

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