How to Find Out What’s Really Going On

Posted 06.07.2012

I’m on the road for the rest of the week working with new executives on delegation skills today and delivering colleague feedback to a senior executive coaching client on Friday. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been conducting a lot of colleague interviews for that client and two others. Even though I’ve conducted these kinds of interviews for a dozen years now, I’m still learning new things about how to find out what’s really going on for a client.

What got me thinking about this was an article I read recently in Booz and Company’s Strategy and Business Magazine. It was called “Navigating the First Year:  Advice from 18 Chief Executives.” It’s a good read for any leader who finds or expects to find themselves in a new job.

One of the CEOs who participated in the article was Chip Bergh of Levi Strauss. Here’s what he said about how he figured out what was really going on in his new company:

I spent the first month mostly listening. I came up with a set of standard questions: What three things must we preserve? What three things must we change? What do you most hope I will do? What are you most concerned I might do? What advice do you have for me? … I spent an hour with (over 65 people) and basically just listened and took notes as they answered the questions.

What was interesting was that after about 15 or so interviews, it was pretty clear what the objectives needed to be. People inside the company knew what needed to happen, and it was pretty consistent.

Bergh’s experience is similar to three things I find in conducting feedback interviews for my clients.  First, if you work from a standard set of questions you can compare and contrast the answers and see the patterns.  Second, if you ask short, open-ended questions you can learn a lot.  Third, you don’t have to interview scores of people to find out what’s really going on.  The patterns emerge pretty quickly after a dozen or so conversations.

Bergh asked some great questions.  Here’s what I’ve been asking my clients’ colleagues lately and why I think they’ve helped in finding out what’s really going on for my clients:

  •  What’s been going well lately? This is a good, non-threatening starting point question.  You learn a lot from what people say.  When they don’t have a ready answer that tells you something too.
  • What would make things better over the next six to 12 months?  This question gives people a chance to talk about the changes they’d like to see the leader make.
  • When you think about goals for the next year, what are the few things that should be taking up most of my client’s time and attention? This one helps you understand what people think the priorities are or should be.
  • What’s the biggest risk for my client?  This question often leads to some of the most important points made in the conversations.
  • What’s your one best piece of advice for my client?  The key word in this question is “one.”  It usually helps focus the response and often leads to something that hasn’t yet been said.

So, that’s my favorite list of questions to find out what’s really going on.  What are some of your favorite questions?  What else do you do to find out what’s really going on?