My favorite 7 questions

Most managers know there's a lot of insight to be gleaned from talking to the troops. This week John McKee provides his favorite seven questions used by leaders of various organizations.

Great leaders seem to be able to get key information in a matter of seconds. But most can take hours to root out the same information -- if they ever get it at all.

Over the years, I've found that the hallways (real or virtual) of most organizations, when used effectively, can be great opportunities to keep in touch with the "real world." However, making the most of quick engagements is a skill most leaders never develop fully. That's unfortunate because they're failing to take advantage of one of the best ways to keep in touch.

For those of you who can be lost for words when such opportunities arise, here are seven of my favorite questions for getting in touch with staff. Each one can provide more insight than a two-hour meeting with the entire team:

1. What's the biggest issue on your plate right now? Most people will respond to this. Often it's nothing more than a complaint or a status report, but it can lead to another question or two that will be enlightening. 2. If I could do just one thing to make you more successful, what would that be? This one often surfaces ongoing issues that are slowing progress. Usually a lower-level individual could resolve it, but that just hasn't happened. 3. What's the dumbest thing the company (or department) is doing (or working on)? Ask this question a few times to different people and you'll soon find one or two things that should be put to death. 4. If you had my job, what would you focus on? Depending on the level of the person you ask, I assure you that you'll hear some pretty interesting ideas that otherwise wouldn't have surfaced. But "little" things can make a big difference to a group's productivity and satisfaction. 5. What's waking you up at night? This has two benefits: First it shows who is really thinking a lot about issues that need to be fixed. You should spend more time with them. Second, it can make it clear who treats the job as simply a paycheck. Do you really want them around? 6. Do you have the tools and resources you need to do your job in the best possible way? I'm always amazed at how a project can be stalled by something that is widely available elsewhere in the company. 7. How can I help you to be more successful? This is a great bonding question. If you really mean it and the team believes that to be the case; it can rally them. But don't ask if you won't deliver on their feedback.

Feedback is a big factor in the impact of the ongoing success of these hallway conversations. The best leaders get back to the individual who gave the ideas -- if you can't do it personally then send an email or make a call to show that you responded to their suggestion or comment.

Even better: "broadcast" the question, where it came from, and what was changed as a result. This will encourage other people to make suggestions or surface issues that need to be attended to. The cumulative effect will be impressive.

With that in mind -- here's question 8:  What's stopping you from doing this immediately?