The Key Question for Leaders

I recently attended a strategy meeting where I had the distinct impression that I was irritating people.  The reason was that while everyone was busy with the questions of what? where? when? and who? I kept asking ‘why?’

The problem is that ‘why’ is an awkward question.  Our dislike of it probably begins with children relentlessly using it to irritate their parents; and in business it has connotations of confrontation, disrespect and challenge.  Yet ‘why’ is arguably the most important question that everyone should be asking all of the time.

The reason it is such an important question is that most of the other questions that frequently get asked in business presuppose that you are doing the right thing in the first place; but what if you are not?

For example, some time ago I attended a strategy meeting for a financial services organisation.  They had decided that they needed to cut costs and had asked me to facilitate a series of meetings aimed at defining how they would achieve this objective.  At the first meeting I asked them why cutting costs was important.  Interestingly, everyone in the meeting had an opinion on this but there was very little agreement.  Reasons offered ranged from; “to increase profits” to, “to protect ourselves from lower cost over-seas providers”.  As a result we spent the whole of the first meeting discussing the broader market, industry trends, changing demographics etc.  Simply as a result of asking ‘why?’ we were therefore having a strategic discussion rather than simply planning the operational process for cutting cost.

During the next few meetings the team came to the conclusion that costs were not the biggest issue the organisation faced, but rather that efficiency (measured in terms of revenue per employee) was.  Moreover, they came to the conclusion that cutting costs would only have a marginal impact on this as revenues would be likely to fall as a consequence.  In the end, they concluded that the most pressing operational issue was revenue growth.

The legendary business guru Peter Drucker once said; “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things”.  The question ‘why?’ is therefore a leadership question.  It drills down to the very heart of the issue and exposes weaknesses, fallacies, dogma and flawed thinking along the way.  It is therefore a question that terrifies the weak but is valued by the strong.

About the Author
Alistair Schofield is Managing Director of Extensor Limited.