20 Questions for Successful Leadership
As a leader, it's easy to get so caught up in the press of everyday activity that you lose touch of what it is you're actually trying to do and what success will really look like. In a world of competing priorities, the best way to ensure that you and your organization stay focused on the things that matter is to have a plan. This assertion seems obvious, of course, but in our experience many leaders spend more time reacting to the present than they do planning for the future.
Why is that? One reason might be that in order to rise to a leadership position it is vitally important to be “action oriented.” A bias for “doing” vs. “just talking about it” is what separates the heroes from the also-rans. The trouble is, once heroes are promoted to leadership positions, the discipline of planning takes on much greater importance.
With each step we take up the leadership ladder, two things happen: the stakes go up, and the number of potential distractions that face us every day increases by a multiple. The combination of these two forces can make it harder and harder to differentiate the important from the merely urgent, even as the cost of making mistakes rises.
Even more worrisome, in many cases critical stakeholders such as our boss, direct reports, business partners, or board don’t have a clear understanding of our strategy and priorities, and that gap can lead to misalignment, poor focus, and failure.
“But,” you may be thinking, “what’s the use of spending a lot of time developing a detailed plan when the landscape is constantly shifting? Don’t I need to stay nimble and agile?” The answer, of course, is yes. As the renowned German military strategist Helmuth von Moltke once observed, “No plan survives contact with the enemy.” But to quote another military leader, American president Dwight D. Eisenhower, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”
We recommend creating a clear, specific, and action-oriented Leadership Implementation Plan for the work you do as an executive. It’s never too late to create one (even at the midpoint of the year), and you must re-create your Plan any time your job, role, or business changes.
A Leadership Implementation Plan ensures that you are:
Doing work that matters. You are laser-focused on your organization’s goals. You are striving to understand your chain of command’s priorities and your time and energy are directed to them. You are not overcommitting to projects or activities that won’t yield important outcomes.
Driving results you can describe. You are pushing for outcomes you can articulate. That work may or may not be immediately quantifiable, but more importantly you can tell a story about what you are doing and the impact it will have.
Knowing how results will be tracked and measured. You understand how you and your organization will be assessed by your boss and key stakeholders. You are keeping score and learning from both successes and failures. (Don’t forget to celebrate the successes, too!)
Building a support network for success. You are working effectively with and through others to achieve success. You are being thoughtful about key stakeholders and partners, soliciting their input, listening to their feedback, and keeping them informed and engaged.
Based on our work over the last decade with hundreds of senior leaders across virtually every kind of organization, we believe the best Leadership Implementation Plans are anchored in QUESTIONS. The questions we ask are often as important as the answers, and good questions keep us focused, active, accountable, and in touch with how we're doing. Questions demand reflection, followed by action.
Below is a list of twenty fundamental questions every leader must pose to herself and her team to create a robust and practical Leadership Implementation Plan. We’ve sorted the questions into five broad categories:
- What is the core purpose of my function?
- What are our critical goals, this year and longer term?
- Who are our customers/clients, and what are their needs and requirements?
- What important changes must be made, and what are the barriers to and enablers for those changes?
- What are my core responsibilities?
- What early wins can I secure?
- How will my boss and I measure success?
- How will I manage my relationship with my boss?
- How strong is my team, and where does it need to improve?
- How would I assess each individual team member?
- What is my talent strategy?
- How will I lead in a way that brings out the best in each team member?
- What are my core strengths, and what must I do differently or get better at?
- Where should I focus my time and energy as a leader?
- How can I ensure that I am being strategic, system-focused, and forward-looking in my thinking, decisions, and actions?
- What will I personally do to model and foster my organization’s values and desired culture?
MY KEY STAKEHOLDERS:
- Who are my most important stakeholders, and how can I best communicate and collaborate with them?
- What do other parts of the organization need from me/us, and what do I/we need from them?
- How can I get feedback on my organization and leadership effectiveness from key stakeholders?
- How will I help the broader organization drive meaningful change?
None of these questions are new or particularly surprising, but they go to the heart of your leadership responsibilities. Can you confidently answer each of these questions? Would your boss, your team, or a key board member answer them the same way you do?
Great questions are like the brakes on your car: while it may appear that they have the effect of slowing you down, they are actually the thing that lets you go fast, arriving safely at your destination instead of ending up in a ditch by the side of the road.
Do you have a Leadership Implementation Plan? If not, you need one. You don't have to wait until a new year, a new project, or a new role to answer the critical questions that will lead to success.
What other questions would add to build a great Leadership Implementation Plan? Please share them with us: firstname.lastname@example.org
“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where--” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
“--so long as I get SOMEWHERE,” Alice added as an explanation.
“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”
—Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland