A quarter million dollars of advice.

The simplest questions are often the most powerful

I recently met with a relatively new CEO for the first of our 1:1 sessions. After some initial conversation, he began talking about his plans. He gave me a long list of things he’d seen around the organisation that needed addressing, and then went on to talk about the one “big idea” that he thought would open a new phase of growth for the business.

It reminded me of a number of seminars that I’ve run in the past for groups of business leaders, where I’ve introduced a case study and given them 20 minutes in small groups, to come up with a recommendation. Invariably, each group comes up with a different “silver-bullet” solution, which in itself demonstrates three things: there are always multiple options to improve a business; those options are rarely mutually exclusive; and most people stop thinking once they’ve come up with the first one.

I related this as an example, advised that we take a broader perspective, and for the following 20 minutes we opened the conversation into a variety of other areas. He took the time to think about how else he could grow the business longer-term, often prompting him to recall thoughts and ideas that had come up in previous discussions but had slipped his mind. As I played back what he’d said, it became apparent that there were actually three big areas he wanted to develop, and a whole bunch of little things that needed to quickly get fixed, nearly all of which he could delegate.

The process was simple, the opportunities that emerged were big, but no more than common sense, and my input was minimal. I think I only asked three questions: “Tell me more about…”; “Why is that important…”; and “What would that help to achieve…” And yet, within half an hour, he’d drafted a pretty comprehensive growth strategy and was delighted with the clarity he’d gained. Sometimes the simplest questions are the most powerful.

There’s a (possibly apocryphal) story that Richard Rumelt relates in his book “Good Strategy / Bad Strategy”, of when F W Taylor, one of America’s first recognised Management Consultants, met the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie (pictured above) sometime around 1890. Upon being introduced, Carnegie, with more than a little sarcasm, apparently said, “If you can tell me something about management that is worth hearing, I’ll send you a cheque for ten thousand dollars.”

Taylor replied simply, “I would advise you to make a list of the ten most important things you can do. And then, start doing number one.” A week later, so the story goes, Carnegie sent Taylor a cheque for ten thousand dollars, the equivalent of a quarter of a million in today’s money.

The point that Rumelt makes of this, and which my experience merely reinforces, is that so often we get trapped in the tactical, distracted by the detail, and our mindfulness of those longer-term goals and aspirations gets usurped by the myriad urgent issues and decisions that continually land on our desks. A clear strategy with big, long-term goals, is a touchstone, a reference point we can use to step out of the trees and remind us of the shape of the woods. But we tend to need an external prompt to help us take that “step out” on a regular basis, to think strategically, to redefine and re-engage with our big priorities. A prompt like Taylor provided for Carnegie.

So, here’s that prompt for you. Put an hour in your diary, describe where you’d like to be in a few years’ time, jot down a range of ways you could get there, and make a list of half a dozen big things you’ll need to do. Then start doing the first thing on the list. You may be surprised by how useful an exercise it turns out to be.

Oh, and feel free to send a cheque for a quarter of a million to the usual address.