If leaders aren’t asking these questions, they aren’t doing it right

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"I wouldn't know," muttered Colin Firth when he was playing King George VI in the 2011 Oscar-winning movie, “The King's Speech,” in response to his speech therapist’s nonchalant comment.

It’s not just royals who suffer from feelings of isolation. Of CEOs polled by the Harris Interactive Service Bureau in 2012, 63% said they experienced loneliness in their role. Other leaders say that their elevated position means they don’t hear honest, timely and constructive feedback since subordinates are afraid of offending their boss.

If a firm doesn’t accomplish its big priorities, lesser priorities don’t matter.

Yet no leader knows everything. Those in a position of power, in particular, need a framework to analyze the issues that are crucial to their firm’s success and diagnose any problems that exist. To help build this framework, there are certain questions leaders should ask themselves, according to Harvard Business School professor Robert S. Kaplan’s excellent 2011 book, “What to Ask the Person in the Mirror.”


Do you have a clear vision for the business and three to five key priorities to achieve that vision?

At Savant Capital Management, the firm where I work, the company’s vision is stated in one short phrase: “building ideal futures.”

This vision has been broken down into discrete objectives and tasks by our CEO and leadership team. They’re confident that if the firm hits its objectives, we’re headed in the right direction.

Priorities matter, too. We have only a small list of key priorities, and they are governed by the principle first things first. If the firm doesn’t accomplish its big priorities, lesser priorities don’t matter.


Do you know where you spend your time, and are you making sure the investment of your time matches your key priorities?

Every leader has a significant breadth of responsibilities, some of which may seem to get in the way of business building. Leaders need to examine the amount of time they’re spending in planning, client contact, interaction with media, supervision of direct reports (including coaching and reviewing), recruitment, innovation, internal and external communication, and budgeting and finance.

As a leader, focus on the things that will help accomplish your prioritized objectives, and say no to everything else.

Make sure you’ve delegated things you can. Focus on the things that will help accomplish your prioritized objectives, and say no to everything else.


Are you coaching your direct reports and getting coached as well?

Coaching others is not evaluation. Evaluation is an annual review, while coaching helps subordinates understand their key strengths and weaknesses.

Coaching identifies training, action items and activities that help build on strengths and address weaknesses. Because most planners haven’t studied these skills, this is an area in which an outside coaching professional can help with techniques and processes to employ with subordinates.

Looking “upward,” it’s usually difficult for leaders to receive actionable feedback from key subordinates. In our firm, the CEO gets actionable goals and feedback from two directions.

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First, the CEO’s goals stated in formal directives in our governance manual give specific objectives that are to be achieved. For example, the CEO must report compliance or noncompliance with various financial metrics. If there is noncompliance, the leadership team discusses what happened and why and helps develop action items to correct the deficiency.

Second, we employ outside consultants and coaches.


Do you have a succession planning process for key leaders, including yourself?

This means identifying high-potential employees inside the firm who are willing and capable of stepping into roles with greater responsibility. It also might mean identifying roles that can’t be filled by existing employees; in those cases, leaders have to clearly define what they need in the way of an external hire.

Some planners running small firms see their situation in a different light, however. They’ve given up delegating because it doesn’t seem to go very well. They don’t see the critical connection between succession planning and delegation to key employees.

Worse yet, some are determined to keep their job for as long as possible and have no desire to develop diverse talent that could threaten their job. Of course, this has the ultimate effect of driving off key talent, leaving only those loyal to the leader rather than to the company. This inevitably leads to judgment gaps due to the collective deficiency of the executive team.

To develop a succession-minded culture, good leaders have to look carefully at their organization chart and come up with individual career development plans for potential successors for key jobs. We called it the “career path program” in one of my firms. In great companies, top leaders take responsibly for being the top talent scout and talent developer.

As a leader, have you asked the right questions lately?

Finally, a good leader has identified potential successors for his or her job and delegates sufficiently so subordinates can get the requisite decision-making experience. A failure to do so is often seen in “overworked” CEOs who can’t or won’t delegate noncritical tasks, while spending insufficient time on the firm’s highest priorities.


Is the company’s organizational structure still aligned with your vision and priorities?
Good leaders make sure the organization supports their priorities. At my current company, we have had free-wheeling discussions about what the firm might do in the future, with no idea of how to accomplish it. We’ve debated what opportunities and treats existed and whether we should move in one direction or another. Neither of these activities creates a vision or priorities, however.

Good leaders involve their key employees in developing the priorities and action plans to propel the firm toward its vision. For example, in pursuing our company’s vision, “building ideal futures,” strategic planning sessions have identified key priorities. Over time, priorities change as technological changes and competitive forces have caused us to redirect staff and evolve the organization.

Beyond asking the right questions, good leadership means finding the right answers, rather than the answers you want to hear. It means being in touch with your staff, and communicating your commitment to the company priorities. Good leadership means being the change agent and cheerleader for those who adapt, adopt, persevere and overcome, even if you try but fail at first.

Good leadership is walking the walk by espousing the core values of the company in every respect. Good leaders conduct themselves well under pressure with consistent conduct in all circumstances. Good leaders develop principles, set priorities and stick to their goals, creating a culture of merit, a spirit of cooperative consideration, personal growth and learning, and business rules everyone wants to live by.

As a leader, have you asked the right questions lately? If not, take some time and reflect on these questions. For greater insights, invest in Kaplan’s book and dig deeper. You’ll be glad you did.

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Succession planning Evaluation and coaching Corporate governance Robert Kaplan Harvard Business School Savant Capital Management