Ask Small Questions… Get Big Results

People love puzzles.

Crossword puzzles. Sudoku. “Wheel of Fortune”. Mobile game apps. Videogames. You name it – people like to solve it.  The human brain loves a good challenge.

When you boil it all down – what are puzzles? Puzzles are simply questions that people react to on a conscious or sub-conscious level.

Questions trigger the imagination. Questions ignite passion. Questions can send people on exquisite mental journeys of wonder and creativity.

Most people are innately curious. They want to know about things. They seek to understand. They believe knowledge and wisdom come from curiosity.

Curiosity begins with a question – but not all questions are effective at piquing curiosity.

Sometimes, asking an elaborate or complex question can provoke fear and confusion.

Much like trying to tackle a really monumental problem, asking a big question can activate the “flight or fight” center of the brain. Being on the receiving end of one of those big questions may cause a person to deflect or dissemble.

How many of us have been asked:

  • What do you want to be doing five/ten years from now?
  • How can you double the sales for your region or territory in 6 months?
  • What is the strategic vision for your company?
  • On a personal note – How can I lose 40lbs this year?  Or make a million dollars in a year?

You get the point.  Those are some really “big” questions!

On the other hand, asking small questions may keep the brain’s emotional centers in “neutral”. Lots of little questions related to a big problem can lessen the overwhelming desire to hide or run away.

Maybe a better way to ask those big questions would be:

  • Could you describe the first 10 minutes of your typical day five years from now?
  • What is the one thing you can do now to improve the business of your most important customer?
  • What’s one thing you want people to say about your business in 5 years?
  • Personal questions – What is one small step you could take today to reduce the amount of food you eat for dinner? How could you start off by saving 10 bucks a week?

Asking small questions doesn’t mean you can’t tackle huge, ‘hairy’ problems. It just means you believe the best way to solve big problems is with one small question at a time.

Small is a good thing. It forces you to focus. Asking lots of small questions may yield better results than those multi-part or convoluted questions that are impossible to answer.

Think about it! What’s the fascination with asking long or complicated questions?

Mostly, it’s ego.

Some people think asking complex or weighty questions shows how smart they are.

It doesn’t.

Mostly it illustrates that they care more about how they sound rather than caring about your answer.

Asking great small questions is more than just putting a “?” on the end of a sentence.

There is an art to asking small questions.  They should be focused on learning… not judging, on growth… not assigning blame, and on creativity… not on limiting the imagination.

Small questions should empower. Unless you’re looking for a ‘specific’ answer (either a yes or no, or call for an answer from a limited range of options), great small questions should be “open-ended”.

Questions like the following encourage people to expand their thinking and enhance their problem-solving skills:

  • What other options do you have?
  • How else could you approach that problem?
  • What do you think about…?
  • How would our customers react to those changes?

Here are some other suggestions for asking great small questions.

Avoid jargon.

Stay away from those wonderfully obtuse and overly complicated ‘biz-speak’ questions. Forget about wanting to sound clever.

Listen.  Really listen.  Don’t interrupt.

Ask a small question. Listen to the answer. Ask another one based on the person’s answer. Listen. Ask again. Soon patterns will become apparent and big problems may seem more manageable.

So, try it.

Go small.  Go simple.

You may find that small questions will help you on your path to leadership greatness.

Chinese proverb: “He who asks a question is a fool for five minutes;
he who does not, remains a fool forever.”

Think Big… Act Small

One of my favorite leadership maxims comes from Virgil’s Aeneid X – “audentis fortuna iuvat”.

Ok, so Latin isn’t your thing!

Translation – “Fortune Favors the Bold”

Great leaders think big. Great leaders are bold. They reach for the stars and look for that next big opportunity or challenge around the bend.

More often than not, great leaders also realize that the most glorious victories rest on a string of small, discrete wins.

Let’s face it – when it comes to organizational or personal change – “BHAG’s” – Big Hairy Audacious Goals (thank you, Jim Collins) scare the snot out of most people.

We’re all human, or at least most of us are. We are set in our ways. We like routines. We cherish predictability. Our brains are hardwired for maintaining the status quo.  When confronted with new things or big challenges, many of us experience the “deer in the headlights syndrome”. We either go into brain freeze or we allow inertia to take over our behavior.

Great leaders understand this resistance to change and subscribe to the belief that making small, steady personal or organizational improvements will add up to big, positive changes over time.

Consider this quote from John Wooden – one of the most successful college basketball coaches of all time:

“When you improve a little each day, eventually big things occur. When you improve conditioning a little each day, eventually you have big improvement in conditioning. Not tomorrow, not the next day, but eventually a big gain is made. Don’t look for the big, quick improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens – and when it happens, it lasts.”

Tackling big changes sometimes causes the brain to seize up.  Or even worse, it may provoke the “fight or flight” response. Remember Monty Python and the Holy Grail – “Run Away!  Run Away!”

Taking small steps or looking at big change as a series of smaller tasks allows people to circumnavigate fear and inertia. When you break big goals or massive change into smaller, more manageable steps, you minimize the threat of resistance and help people avoid feeling overwhelmed.

Remember the old adage – “How Do You Eat an Elephant? – One small bite at a time”. Instead of working on one 12-week project, break it down into 12 one-week projects.  Then attack each project one small step at a time.

Small victories can build momentum. Momentum sparks motivation.

Getting something small done every day can lead to accomplishing big things.

Success breeds success. Maybe it will take a bit longer – but what would you rather have, small incremental improvements or no change at all?

Change is seldom easy. Setbacks are inevitable. When we fall down – when we fail to achieve our grand ambitions – we get discouraged and often throw in the towel. We tell ourselves, “It’s too hard” or “It’s not worth it” or “I’ll never be successful at…” Small steps help us overcome these setbacks. It’s much easier and far less intimidating to re-start a change effort when you take baby steps toward your goal.

It’s no big deal if you slip up. Everybody does. Just pick yourself up and start again.

Great leadership wisdom can be found in the Tao Te Ching – “Confront the difficult while it is easy; accomplish the great task by a series of small acts.”

So, by all means, think big. Have a vision. Be bold.

At the same time, remember what really counts is how well you execute. Great leaders know that you can’t have superb execution unless you focus on nailing the little things.

Here is one of my favorite Teddy Roosevelt quotes:

“Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”

Coming next month: “Ask Small Questions… Get Big Results!”

A Sad Day… the passing of Neil Armstrong

Neil Armstrong was the "real" deal.The world lost a true hero on August 25, 2012 when Neil Armstrong died at the age of 82 from post-surgical complications arising out cardiovascular surgery.

In July 1969, as Commander of the Apollo 11 flight, he was the first man to set foot on the moon.

Neil Armstrong was the “real” deal.

He was the epitome of humility.  He never sought to cash in on his fame. When he returned to earth, he became an ardent spokesperson for NASA and a college professor.  He was selfless… compassionate… and caring. He was a hero for many of us “boomers” and represented the best of the American spirit.

As he stepped off the lunar module, Neil Armstrong recognized the “power of small” in his timeless and immortal words, “that’s one small step for man… one giant leap for mankind.”

Thank you, Neil Armstrong. Rest in peace.

Change Sucks

Change sucks!

Change is hard. Change is demanding. Real change takes time.

All of us possess the capability for change, yet very few of us eagerly welcome change with open arms.

Why? Why is change so scary… so difficult?

Maybe it’s the twin scourges of inertia and fear. Maybe we find the status quo so comfortable that we resist change. Maybe we just don’t know how to change.

While the reasons behind our avoidance of change are many, there is no shortage of “expert” advice on change.

Take a leisurely stroll through any virtual or brick and mortar bookstore and you will discover hundreds of books on change. Search the Internet and you will find thousands of articles on change.

While change gurus abound, you can be assured that there is no one… single… absolutely foolproof way or system for change.

So, if you will permit me, here are some possible suggestions for change. These tips are culled from a variety of respected and proven change methodologies.

  • Start with Desire

Change is impossible without desire. You simply can’t change anything without desire or commitment. The first step to changing your behavior is wanting to change your behavior. No desire… no passion… no commitment… NO Change!

  • Think Small

All too often, people fail at changing their behavior or accomplishing their goals because they set goals that are so big… so overwhelming… they become discouraged at the lack of progress or they just quit. Break your goals into smaller pieces… take small steps, rather than large ungainly strides. Reward yourself for each small win.

  • Give Substance to Your New Behavior

Write down exactly what you would like your new behavior to be. Be SPECIFIC. Make it measurable. Example: I will wake up 5 minutes earlier each day for the next two weeks. Or, I will begin every 1:1 meeting for the next week with an “open-ended” question.

  • Practice… Practice… and more, Practice

Forget about the saying, “Practice makes perfect.” Perfect practice makes perfect. To make change meaningful, you must push yourself to repeat it consistently… and correctly. Be honest with yourself… critique your efforts and work to improve every day.

  • Bounce Back and Fix It

Change is seldom linear. Sometimes it’s one step forward…  and two steps backward. Don’t let a temporary setback turn into an excuse to quit. Stick with it. Avoid beating yourself up if you slip up. Pick yourself up and keep trying.

  • Find a “Change Buddy”

Enlist the help of a friend or group for encouragement and support. Return the favor… mutual support is critical to keeping you and your “buddy” in the ‘change game.’

  • Speed Up Your Change through Mental Imagery

The change you desire will happen faster if you take the extra time to “visualize” yourself doing this behavior correctly. Picture the outcome you want… and adjust your behavior.

  • Be The Change You Want To Be

Make your behavioral change into a character trait that defines who you are and what you value. Example – “I am a world-class leader. I listenI care about people and I get results.”

One thing is certain – everything changes.

You can either run toward change or you can run away from it. You can either sit on the sidelines and deny the inevitability of change or you can embrace it.

It’s your choice.

“Be Kind…” – President George H. W. Bush

Kindness is NOT a word generally associated with great leaders.

Ask a randomly selected group of people to articulate the top 10 character traits of great leaders and you’ll probably hear words like integrity… strong… visionary… courageous… resilient… authentic… and results-driven.

To be sure, these are all important qualities of great leadership.  While compassion might make the list, it’s highly unlikely you will discover kindness among the most significant leadership attributes.

Most people just don’t think kindness or a “generosity of spirit” is crucial for great leaders.

I beg to differ.

Kindness does matter.

Kindness matters because people need to feel that their contributions are recognized and appreciated.  People need to believe their leaders truly care about them as people, not just as employees or interchangeable nameless parts in a large organization.

I am convinced that Kindness is a fundamental element of great leadership.

Consider this remarkable excerpt from a wonderful new book by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, The Presidents Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012), 412.

On the eve of his crushing defeat to Bill Clinton in 1992, President George H.W. Bush wrote in his personal diary:

“Now to bed, prepared to face tomorrow: Be strong, be kind, be generous of spirit, be understanding and let people know how grateful you are. Don’t get even. Comfort the ones I’ve hurt and let down. Say your prayers and ask God’s understanding and strength.  Finish with a smile and some gusto and do what’s right and finish strong.”[1]

A classy statement from a very classy leader.


[1] Original quote from:  All the Best, George Bush: My Life in Letters and Other Writings, George H.W. Bush (New York: Lisa Drew/Scribner, 1999), 572.

I’m Sorry

I'm Sorry“Love Story” (1970) was a good movie.

It gave us a young Ryan O’Neal and Ali McGraw. It was a sentimental ‘date movie’… with lots of tears at the end.

It also gave us one of the most insipid and ridiculous move lines of all time – “love means never having to say you’re sorry”.

Frankly, in all these years, I’ve never understood that concept. If you truly love someone, you don’t want to hurt them. And if you have hurt them, you generally want to make amends by apologizing. Sometimes, profusely.

Strangely, this crazy notion of ‘never having to apologize’ has found its way into organizational (and political) life and morphed into:

“Real leaders don’t apologize!”

According to this notion, apologizing conveys weakness. Saying you’re sorry means you’ve given up control. Leaders who apologize have lost the “game”. To apologize is to be humiliated.

What a bunch of hogwash!

Apologizing may be one of the most powerful tools in a leader’s ‘tool-kit’.

Leaders who can’t or won’t apologize may as well be carrying a sign that says, “I’m perfect and never make mistakes” and “I really don’t care about you.”

Saying you’re sorry acknowledges that you’ve made a mistake. A sincere apology means you recognize that your behavior has caused pain, discomfort, or inconvenience. Apologizing signifies you screwed up and you want to repair the damage.

The ability to admit your mistakes… understand the impact of your actions or behavior on others… demonstrate respect for others… and show that you care is at the core of Leading with HECKHumility… Empathy… Civility… and Kindness.

A good apology is a thing of beauty… a great apology has the power to heal.

And, as with many things in life, there is a “right” way and a “wrong” way to apologize.

Let’s consider some of the “bad” ways to apologize.

  • The “Weasel” Apology – “We regret that you may have been inconvenienced by our actions.”  Or, “We’re sorry if this upset you.”

Unless you’re a member of some royal family, the “we” apology is an attempt to deflect personal blame or accountability.

“Weasel” Apologies hide behind a collective group. Great leaders step up and personally own their screw-ups and the mistakes of their followers.

  • The “Non-Apology” Apology – “If my behavior offended you, I apologize.”  Or, “We regret that we may not have lived up to your expectations.”

There is no conditional “if” in a real apology. Using “if” and “may” in an apology diminishes the impact of your bad behavior or your inappropriate actions on others. Expressing remorse while employing the words “if” and “may” is a cop-out.

  • The “Pseudo-Apology” – “I’m sorry that I yelled at you during our staff meeting, but I’m under a lot of stress these days.”

This type of apology seeks to deflect responsibility or accountability for your actions.  It’s an excuse… not an apology.

So, what’s a great apology?

A great apology is:

  • Sincere – It comes from the heart. It acknowledges that you’ve made a mistake. It doesn’t offer excuses for your behavior.
  • Simple – “I’m sorry.” Or, “I apologize” are real apologies.  They’re personal and meaningful. Just saying, “Sorry” or “Apologies all around”, is too simple; there is no personal accountability in these abbreviated apologies.
  • Specific – Blanket apologies or apologies that cover a host of transgressions are simply devices to get out of taking personal ownership for your actions.  Great apologies are specific; they focus on how you messed up and what you will do to prevent it from happening again in the future.
  • Selfless – It focuses on the other person… not on you. Great apologies seek to make things right for the other person.

A really great apology is:

I’m sorry for yelling at you during our staff meeting. There is no excuse for my behavior. I can only say that it won’t happen again.”

                                                            OR

“I apologize for the late delivery of your order. I take full responsibility for our mistake.  We are shipping your product this morning via express courier and it is scheduled to be delivered to your facility by noon tomorrow.”

Sincere… Simple… Specific… and Selfless.

The Paradox of Kindness

Confused about the “Paradox of Kindness”?

Unsure about how a leader can be tough and kind… at the same time?

You’re not alone.

Over the past several months, I have received numerous inquiries about the ‘either/or’ conundrum of leading with kindness.

Most of these well-meaning questions seek to frame leading with kindness as a choice.  A leader can’t implement difficult or unpopular decisions AND be kind at the same time.  You either can be tough or kind – NOT both simultaneously.

I respectfully disagree.

Kindness is HOW you treat people.  Kindness means treating people with honesty, fairness, respect and decency.

Leading with kindness does not mean being soft or wimpy.  Leading with kindness does not mean running away from thorny problems or avoiding confrontational situations.

Leading with kindness means being tough when necessary AND treating people with compassion and civility.

Many years ago, when I was seriously involved with the martial arts, I had a teacher (Sifu) who lived his life with this simple philosophy:

“Be as soft as the world will let you be and as hard as it makes you.”

An interesting paradox – wouldn’t you say?

Happy New Year!

What is Kindness? Why is leading with kindness so important?

Kindness is for suckers…

Kindness is for losers…

Kindness is for weaklings…

Kindness has no place in the rough and tumble world of business.

And now we have proof.

Ripped from the headlines of an August 15, 2011 Wall Street Journal article, “Hey, You!  Mean People Earn More, Study Finds” and “It may not pay to be nice in the workplace” – is the definitive justification for eradicating, once and for all, kindness from the pantheon of leadership values.

If you truly buy into these convoluted and ridiculous bromides, then STOP READING this article!  Go back to plotting your next move for conquering the world – all by yourself.

Leadership is about forging meaningful and lasting relationships.  Caring is the sine qua non for all positive relationships.  Followers will follow only if they believe that a leader truly cares about them.  Kindness is at the core of caring for others.

What is kindness?

Kindness has been described as being:

  • Compassionate
  • Considerate
  • Decent
  • Generous
  • Humane
  • Helpful
  • Patient
  • Thoughtful
  • Tolerant
  • Understanding

The opposite of kindness is:

  • Callous
  • Cold-hearted
  • Cruel
  • Greedy
  • Harsh
  • Heartless
  • Inconsiderate
  • Mean
  • Selfish
  • Vicious

Many misconceptions surround the belief that kindness is critical for leadership greatness.  Among the most pernicious of these faulty ideas is the “either/or” paradox.

Either a leader can be tough or kind… hard-nosed or kind… analytical or kind… passionate or kind.  These statements are all false equivalents.

A great leader can be both tough AND kind.  A great leader can set high performance standards AND be kind.  A great leader can hold people accountable for their actions/goals AND be kind.  Kindness and toughness are not mutually exclusive.

Kindness is HOW you treat people.  Being kind doesn’t mean you have to lower your standards or not expect the best from people.  Kindness means showing you care by treating people with fairness, respect, decency, and compassion.

Another popular misconception is that people don’t need praise or recognition.  Doing a good job should be praise enough by itself.

Not true.

People crave appreciation.  They want to know that what they do matters.  They want to feel like they are contributing to something bigger than themselves.  Mother Theresa once said, “there is more hunger in the world for love and appreciation than for bread.”

Great leaders find a way to fulfill this universal need for appreciation.  They embrace the belief that small gestures of kindness – the smiles, gestures, compliments, and favors – can change lives and accomplish miracles.

A Final Thought –

“Human kindness has never weakened the stamina or softened the fiber of a free people.  A nation does not have to be cruel to be tough.” – Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jr. (1935)

Kindness and the ‘Bottom-Line’

Where’s the profit in kindness?

A wise person once said, “Profit is an outcome.”

Great leaders know that profit is an outcome of doing the right things for employees… customers… partners… and shareholders.

What are the ‘right things’?  Doing the right things for all stakeholders means treating people with respect, decency, honesty, and with kindness.

Kindness promotes positive feelings in the workplace. In study after study, positive emotions at work have demonstrated a powerful impact on the bottom line for most organizations.

In a Gallup survey of over 4 million employees from more than 30 different industries, individuals who receive regular recognition and praise (e.g. ‘acts of kindness’):

  • Increase their individual productivity
  • Increase engagement among their colleagues
  • Are more likely to stay with their organizations
  • Receive higher loyalty and satisfaction scores from customers
  • Have better safety records and fewer accidents on the job[i]

Kindness fuels creativity.

In his book, Primal Leadership, Daniel Goleman suggests that positive feelings or “feeling good lubricates mental efficiency, making people better at understanding information and using decision rules in complex organizations.”  Goleman also points out that positive emotions in the work place make employees behave more ethically and perform more cooperatively in teams.

People are starved for appreciation and kindness.

The US Department of Labor reports that one of the primary reasons people leave their jobs is because they “do not feel appreciated.”  Another poll found that a staggering “65% of Americans reported receiving NO recognition for good work in the past year.”[ii]

In the ‘grand-daddy’ of employee engagement surveys, the Gallup organization suggested in 2003 that “there were more than 22 million workers – in the United States alone – who were extremely negative or actively disengaged.”

Although these findings  are somewhat dated, consider the costs of these negative emotions in 2003 dollars.  According to the 2003 Gallup study, employee disengagement costs the US economy “between $250 and $300 billion every year in lost productivity.  Add in workplace injury, illness, turnover, absences, and fraud that are directly related to the ‘actively disengaged’ and the costs to US businesses could surpass $1 trillion per year.”

That’s one trillion dollars!  Imagine what these disengagement costs are in 2011 dollars.

Kindness is not a trivial luxury or the province of woolly- headed idealists.  Great leaders understand that acts of kindness can have a direct impact on the positive well being and morale of their organizations.

It’s a rather small step to suggest that positive morale significantly increases the productivity of most businesses.

The ‘Bottom Line’ – more kindness means more profit.


[i] How Full is Your Bucket, Tom Rath and Donald Clifton, Ph.D, Gallup Press, 2004, p. 28

[ii] Gallup Management Journal, August 2003

Kindness and Karma

Do you know the old adage, “What goes around… comes around”?

Well, that’s the essence of Karma.

What does Karma have to do with Kindness?

Everything.

You never know when your actions or behaviors today will set events in motion and cause an impact in your life that will be felt much later in the future.

Sometimes, small or seemingly insignificant gestures of goodwill and generosity may come back to enrich your life in ways that may be completely unforeseen.

Maybe not today.  Maybe not even tomorrow… but some day your thoughtfulness and compassion may be returned to you tenfold.

Yet, real acts of kindness are not given with the expectation of getting something in return.  Kindness should be given without strings attached.  Kindness comes from the heart… and the heart demands no quid pro quo.

Here is a wonderful tale of Kindness and Karma:

This is a legendary story about a farmer who discovered a young boy stuck in a mud bog somewhere in the United Kingdom.

After much struggle, the farmer was able to free the lad, although for a moment the farmer felt that he, too, would sink too deeply into the mud to survive.

Later that evening, a lord stopped by the farmer’s humble shanty, identifying himself as the rescued boy’s father and offering to pay him a generous reward for his effort.

When the farmer refused, the lord saw that the farmer had a son and insisted that he pay the boy’s way to college. 

After he graduated with a degree in science, the young man – Alexander Fleming – went on to discover penicillin.

Ironically, the young man who had been rescued from the bog, now a young adult, came down with pneumonia.  Thanks to Fleming’s discovery – penicillin – his life was saved. 

The young man’s name:  Sir Winston Churchill.”

The moral:  Kindness begets kindness.

You just never know when a single act of kindness will change your life or someone else’s life forever.

Just ask Sir Winston Churchill if kindness and karma are connected.