Four Questions Every Leader Must Answer Every Day

AdVance Leadership » Four Questions Every Leader Must Answer Every Day

Welcome to Friday 411, issue #027. In 4 minutes, with 1 insight and 1 action, you’ll discover four questions that employees ask every day and your role as a leader in answering them.  

1 Insight

Every day that your employees come to work, they’re asking four questions. They may not ask these questions out loud. In fact, they may not even consciously ask these questions. But they’re asking them when they’re getting ready in the morning. They’re asking them when they’re preparing for a meeting. They’re asking them when they check their email.

One of your responsibilities as a leader is to answer these questions for your employees. If you don’t answer the questions, they make up their own answers. Worse yet, if you can’t answer the questions, you will create confusion and frustration.

But, if you can and do answer these four questions, you not only create clarity but also lay a foundation for a healthy community and culture.

The four questions are:

  1. Where are we going?
  2. How are we getting there?
  3. What’s my role in getting there?
  4. Why is it important to get there?

Let’s look at each of these questions individually. We’ll use one of the great speeches in American history to show how one president answered these four questions.

Question 1: Where are we going?

On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy stood before a joint session of Congress and declared where America was going. He said, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”

In making this declaration, Kennedy unified the country and created tremendous clarity.  Few business leaders today create this type of clarity for their companies. In fact, 78% of employees don’t believe that their leaders have a clear direction for where the organization is going.

When leaders fail to answer the question of “where are we going,” employees must guess what the most important projects are. It leaves them feeling like they’re spending much of their days in unimportant busywork.

To answer this question, create a clear, concise, and compelling statement about where your company is going. Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, calls this the “Big, Hairy Audacious Goal” (BHAG). It could be:

  • Financial – We will be a $5 Billion company in 5 years.
  • Competitive – We will crush our biggest competition within 3 years.
  • Qualitative – We will be the world’s best customer service company by 2035.
  • Size-Based – We will be the largest distributor of roofing supplies in the next 10 years.

In Alice in Wonderland, the Cheshire Cat says, “If you don’t know where you’re going, then any road will take you there.” If you’ve answered the first question, you do know where you’re going. So now you need the right road.

Question 2: How will we get there?

The answer to the first question inspires people and gets them excited. But it doesn’t give them guidance on how to get there. The second question provides a road map.

For Kennedy, this included several answers in the same speech:

  • Create the Rover Nuclear Rocket
  • Design and develop multiple engines
  • Develop alternate liquid and solid fuel boosters
  • Accelerate the development of a lunar spacecraft
  • Redistribute funds to put more money into the space program
  • Ensure the survival of humans in space through  unmanned explorations

In your business, you need to help your employees understand critical milestones, projects, and tasks that will propel you forward.

Our favorite tool for helping employees know how to get there is using Strategic Bets. Strategic Bets are risks your business is willing to take because you believe they will move your BHAG forward. At this stage, nothing can be certain, but these are the concentrated areas you are betting will result in accomplishing your BHAG. (The term Strategic Bets was inspired by the wonderful book Thinking in Bets by Annie Duke.)

For example, if your company BHAG was “To increase market share to 57% in the next three years,” you might make several Strategic Bets:

  • Acquire Companies
  • Market to Target Audience
  • Develop Leaders

You’re betting that acquisitions, targeted marketing, and leadership development will help you increase your market share to 57%.

By identifying these three Bets, you make it easier for employees to choose the most important projects to concentrate on. For example, you could have multiple projects under Acquisitions.

  • Bet: Acquire Companies
    • Project 1: Research 20 companies with healthy finances and culture
    • Project 2: Develop relationships with leaders at those companies
    • Project 3: Purchase 5 Companies that have 5% or higher market share

Strategic Bets also clarify how to prioritize spending in your company. In fact, when Kennedy delivered his speech, he only had $7 Million available. He asked Congress to allocate an additional $23 Million for the Rover Nuclear Rocket. Then he asked (in the same speech!) for an additional $50 Million to accelerate space satellite communication. Finally, he asked for $75 Million more to develop satellites for worldwide weather observation.

Wise leaders limit their Strategic Bets to no more than 15 at one time. However, your Strategic Bets can change as you make progress toward your BHAG.

Once your team knows what the Strategic Bets are, the plans to get there become much simpler. They have a roadmap that helps them determine which goals and projects are most important for them to concentrate on.

Question #3: What’s my role in getting there?

Plans are important, but you must go one step further. People need to understand how their role helps the organization “get there.” It creates discouragement, frustration, and disengagement when a person can’t figure out how they fit into the big picture.

In 1962, President Kennedy was touring NASA. He noticed a man carrying a broom. Kennedy introduced himself, “Hi, I’m Jack Kennedy. What do you do?”

The man responded, “Well, Mr. President, I’m putting a man on the moon.”

This story demonstrates the connection between understanding your role and buying into the BHAG. The janitor understood the critical nature of his work. Imagine if someone spilled water in the hallway of NASA. An astronaut walked down the hall and didn’t see the water. He slipped, fell, and broke his arm. That injury could set back the goal of getting to the moon by months.

The janitor knew his role – to keep the facilities clean and safe. He also knew that he played an indispensable part in putting a man on the moon.

Every employee needs to understand their role and how it contributes to “getting there.” If they don’t believe their role matters, they’ll act like it doesn’t.

Question #4: Why is it important to get there?

This final question often gets overlooked, but it is essential. It helps people understand why their work is important and meaningful to the world. 

In Kennedy’s day, putting a man on the moon wasn’t simply about technological advancement. In the 1960s, there was an ideological war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Both countries wanted to demonstrate that their beliefs were superior.

The Soviet Union believed in Communism, and the U.S. believed in Capitalism. Both countries wanted the rest of the world to embrace their ideology and prevent the other country’s ideas from spreading.

Both countries believed their superiority would be confirmed if they made it to the moon first.

In President Kennedy’s address to Congress he said, “If we are to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny, the dramatic achievements in space which occurred in recent weeks should have made clear to us all, as did the Sputnik in 1957, the impact of this adventure on the minds of men everywhere, who are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take.” (Emphasis added. See here for the rest of the speech.)

When President Kennedy declared that they would put a man on the moon and return him safely by the end of the decade, he wasn’t simply declaring a goal. He was rallying the whole country to end the spread of Communism.

Employees want to be part of something important and meaningful. But, if you don’t help them see what it is, they are left to come up with their own answers. They may have a personal answer, but they need a communal one as well to unify the team.

It’s important to note that it is okay if employees have their own answers to Question #4. For example, it might be important to them because they want to provide for their families. Or because they want to discover their own potential. Or because they want to leave a legacy for those they influence.

The corporate and individual good are not at odds with each other. In fact, they are friends! As a leader, provide an answer to Question #4, and give them the freedom to add their own answers.

For more on Clarity, check out How to Eliminate Confusion and Lead with Clarity.

1 Action

Determine if you have answers to these questions. If not, set aside time to start answering them with your Leadership Team.

If you have already answered all four questions, talk about the answers regularly with everyone on your team.


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