To the CEO: Are You Asking the Right Questions?

Thu, Jun 11, 2015





Questions can be more important than answers. Good CEOs know this. Among the questions: “What don’t I know that could kill me?” And “Am I pushing too hard or not hard enough?”


It is NOT that they do it every day, just periodically. Good CEOs challenge their own assumptions and their own knowledge and routinely do it to others. They also imagine scenarios beyond those for which they are planning. “What if….” is a frequent question not only to test assumptions, strategy and plans but also how the organization may have to adapt in the face of change.


In a meeting, if you ask for questions and allow “top of mind” responses you will often get superficial answers. If you ask each person to write down their top 2 or 3 best questions that go deepest to the situation at hand, then go around the table you will get richer answers.

There are workshops (including in my Vistage International community) which suggest an architecture to questions:

Level 1 questions elicit facts and known solutions.

Level 2 questions elicit elaboration of thinking and logic (or lack of it).

Level 3 questions reveal deeply held emotions (including fears), prejudices and more.

If this is of general interest, we may write a column with more granular insights into asking terrific questions. It is, after all what both leaders and coaches need to do all the time.


In 1988, Richard Neustadt and Ernest May wrote: “Thinking in Time, The Use of History for Decision-Makers.” I find it is timeless (no pun intended). Do I know all I could? How could I find out what i really need to know? Is the analogy in my head a good one or flawed? Let’s decide how to think about “this” before we decide “what to do about this.”

The book is still available on

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That’s just my view. What’s yours?



Thu, Jun 11, 2015


One of my CEO clients was asked by his P/E firm to present his view of what has made him a successful CEO in two different companies. The top line will come as no surprise to the experienced CEO:

  1. Aligned Strategy & Scorecard Up Front
  2. Strategy Deployment Plan – A Tool to Roll Out Everything and Set The Operating Cadence
  3. Talent – Early upgrading and an annual review with the Board
  4. Stretch Budgets
  5. Recruiting Outside Board Directors
  6. Retain an Executive Coach

In my view, this list also applies to companies that are founder-owned, employee-owned and public (with a few additions for publics).

I asked him how his own views had changed as a result of his gigs as CEO. This is his view:

  • He may have been initially doubtful that he could not fare just as well without the extraordinary amount of help involved in these KSFs. but he now believes:
    • There is no substitute for an early, independent assessment of strategy by an experienced firm who can bring market and customer insights to the table
    • Frequent review of the scorecard based on the strategy keeps both Board and management time and focus where it is needed as well as maintaining alignment with the Board
    • The use and frequent review of a strategy deployment tool[1] makes clear the goals, each executive’s part in achieving them and drives the rest of management to focus the most precious resource — time and attention — on their contribution to the results
    • Recruiting a project management expert to drive strategy deployment is essential, possibly with experience in ‘Lean manufacturing and services”
    • Early upgrading of the senior team and next level are crucial as is an annual review of talent.
    • Stretch budgets increase transparency and contribute a lot to exceeding budgets
    • Outside board members (even if an advisory board) bring perspectives, talents and connections that no one inside has
    • An executive coach is the safe accountability partner who will challenge the CEO on all dimensions of his leadership and may be able to learn from all parties (including the board) what he cannot via periodic assessments (“360”)

 I did not have any influence on his adding the last KSF which is clearly in my own interest. I will add that one of the other portfolio company CEOs commented on the nature of a coach he considers worthy: enough years of working with CEOs to recognize patterns in CEO behavior, business issues and the like and to be unflinching in challenging the CEOs assumptions, approaches and behaviors.

 If you find this helpful, please tell your friends. If not, please tell me. If you wish to know more about any of the tools, just ask.


[1] A display of overall goals, initiatives and tasks which align to achieve the goals along with names of individuals responsible for each of these


It’s Not About the Horse (Part 2)

Fri, Apr 10, 2015


EXTRAORDINARY LEADERS: It’s Not About the Horse, Part Two

In the prior post, we described the challenge of working directly with the horse and the immediate feedback and learning we received. The learning was surprisingly relevant to work and family.

Examples included:

  • Inadequate support kills rapport (the horse put his foot down when he sensed you were not holding his foot up sufficiently)
  • Even horses detest your multitasking (if you look away at, say a camera, the horse will stop cooperating)

The conversation with the handler was equally useful with what we will call “nuggets” worth considering (ask which of these applies to people, which apply to the boss and which to subordinates; enjoy grazing):

  • Horses will open themselves to risk with you only if you demonstrate safety and earn trust and respect
  • Horses read how you show up (clarity of intent and underlying emotions communicated by your posture, movement, the smell of fear or confidence) and act accordingly; train or be trained
  • If at first you do not succeed, try something else; it is good to admit a mistake, be vulnerable for a moment then move on. And don’t prove to yourself that you can repeat a success – celebrate and move on.
  • Be open to examine yourself and how you show up; do you have triggers of fear or aversion that go way back? Do you know what they are and can manage? Were you sheltered or encouraged to fend for yourself? Peel the onion.
  • Learn to ask for help. The way you frame your questions will be tip-offs to the handlers. A small aperture leads to a small life.
  • Don’t try the same approach to a stubborn, confident horse that you would use with one that is shy and skittish
  • Look at your desired destination before you move; only then will the horse follow
  • There is no equality in the herd; there is always someone below you and someone above you

I asked the handler how they screen new handler candidates. “Easy, she said: we have them observe a session or two and ask them what they saw. And we then have them witness the group exchange afterward of what the guests learned. If they don’t get it, no way.”

I also asked their view of having both spirited horses who may fight with others and more easygoing animals. “We are ok with different temperaments as long as they do their job and don’t bite the guests.”

If you would like to read more, find Wyatt Webb’s books or better yet go to Miraval and have the equine experience.

That’s just my view. What’s yours?






To be an extraordinary leader: is it about the horse?

Fri, Apr 3, 2015

1 Comment

Lessons from the Webb

  1. The Equine Experience (created by Wyatt Webb, Therapist)

WW Photo

At the wonderful Miraval Resort near Tucson, you can go to the stables and attempt to work with a horse (under the care of an expert). Try to get the horse to give you his hoof to clean. Sounds simple, right? You approach the horse, as instructed you reach down and pinch his leg, ready to hold it up and clean it with the pick in your other hand. Then nothing happens. The horse just stands there. You wonder: is the horse being stubborn?

You may have stated your intent to the horse – did he not hear you?

The wrangler then asks you a series of questions about your own behavior and underlying emotions. Were you tentative? Confused or uncertain? Worried? Fearful? If yes, the horse sensed it; and interpreted what he sensed as not a clear, strong command.


Or the horse may have picked up his hoof for a split second only to put it down almost instantly. Did you fail to support the hoof sufficiently, holding it firmly and high enough? Then the horse did not feel safe (on three legs) from falling down or needing to run away in case of predator and did not trust you.

When you did succeed, did someone try to take your picture? Did you look away at the camera for a moment? If you did, the horse put his hoof down though you were holding it. Horses do not accept multi-tasking. To risk their safety with you, they cannot afford anything but complete attention.

  1. And again

Now you are told to walk the horse around the circle holding the rope in your hands. Oops. You begin to walk and the horse stands still. Or you get him started but cannot get him to turn left or right. Or you want him to stop and he keeps walking. Or you walk and he stops.

Is it his training? His attitude on this day? Or did the horse not sense you looking in your intended direction, not see you walk before he felt the rope puling him? Or worse, did you really think you could lean against a 1200 pound animal to get him to turn?

And when you did not get what you want in either (1) or (2) above, what did your frustration lead you to do? Hopefully it was to try something different (the hind hoof first with a different approach?).

  1. Minimalist Learning

Whether you are the CEO wanting something from your Board, an alliance, or a key executive, the lessons should be clear. The horse worries about his safety and whether he should trust and respect you. He will do as you ask if you are clear in your intent and provide the support he needs to comply; if you signal where you want to go ahead of time, he will more likely buy in. The same lessons apply to the C-suite executive who wants something from the boss. And possibly in other relationships though I won’t speculate.

In the spirit of full disclosure, once in awhile the horse will not do the task even for the wrangler. And it may be about the horse or about the wrangler at that moment. And you should know that horses understand neither language nor voice-tone and are completely kinetic (physical) in their reading of you. Each human being has a dominant mode of taking information in: visual, auditory and kinetic. It helps to adapt.

If this story has you intrigued, then read the sequel, which I will publish in a week. It will have the full exposition of the take-aways from this vivid and somewhat surprising experience and a running conversation with the wrangler/therapist.

Wyatt Webb’s books are available on amazon:

Get books

That’s just my view. What’s yours?

If you like this post, share it with others. If you do not or disagree with parts of it, then tell me (leave a comment).





Wed, Feb 25, 2015



One of my small business owners owned a franchise in the consumer home services field. He built the company and its financials by hiring good people, adding functions not always present in small businesses (e.g., hiring a marketing director for direct marketing and research on prospects), spending on training, watching the cash flow like a hawk, developing a brand reputation for reliability and value.  


The business grew so well that the franchisor offered him an additional geography and then another and another. He both opened in unchartered territory and took over under-performing franchises. Now he did something very powerful: he retained or recruited general managers in the new territories and made them part owners of their businesses with a piece of the holding company to which they all belonged. This impact of this stake in profit-sharing in their unit and of all the units on their commitment and performance cannot be overstated. In periodic meetings, they share best practices and keep each other honest. As the business grew, he became more of a CEO, introducing processes for sales, implementation, financial and operations reporting and sharing of information. But he never stopped creating the climate in which each geographic leader feels he is the leader. But also a climate where these “owners” accept his leadership and the changes needed going forward. 

Then, as the revenues went from single digit millions to double digit millions and beyond, the CEO recognized the need for leverage of his time so he could focus on what only he can do and delegate much of the more day to day operation to a qualified partner; which he did about two years ago. It was a big leap in both emotion and money for the owner. Now, the two of them, together with the geographic partners have tackled some problems together and some problems as a tandem team. And there are always problems in such an operation. From time to time the CEO may wince at how much money his partner makes, but he knows that the pie has grown a lot and his take is a multiple of what it used to be. And he increasingly has time to look for new opportunities.

 What have you done to multiply yourself to grow the pie?

 This article is the basis for a conversation this morning with my friend Jim Blasingame, expert in small business, leader of the brain trust for small business and host for:

Small Business Advocate


That’s just my view. What’s yours? If you like this post tell your friends. If not, tell me.




Wed, Feb 25, 2015



Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School was early in teaching about disruptive technology using cases such as the demise of the steel industry who could not envision any way to make steel except the capital intensive and large scale facilities in which they had invested. His thesis is that few establishment companies (IBM is one) are able to survive sudden and high value disruption which usually starts at the fringes of the customer base but moves pretty quickly to the core.


Venture capital firms are investing in literally hundreds of companies they believe have the chance to disrupt a market segment, create value that was not there before and “own” the first position. There is an ocean of money chasing a limited number of good deals and potential disrupters top the list. 

Think Uber in personal transportation, Air BnB in short stay accommodations, Amazon in all sorts of products and a host of others who are disrupting car services and taxis, small hotels, grocery stores, drugstores, department stores and more. It is not just being able to order on-line. Even in professional services segments of work and clients are being hived away from traditional firms.

Why the success? It is not just having reviews by other consumers or comparison shopping sites. It is not just ubiquitous sources of product information and competitive pricing. It is not just about sites that let people with common interests share experiences and appetites. It is not just a better understanding of unmet needs and ways to make the purchase match what consumers want. It is the emergence of a global army of people eager and able to dis-intermediate you from your customers and prospects. 

 Many businesses will be blind-sided by disruption if they have not brainstormed how they would do it to themselves if they started with a clean sheet, if they have nobody working on it under, say, 25 years old, if they do not have a real differentiation from competitive offerings, if they have not noticed the emergence of two sets among their customers (traditional high touch slow to switch vs. savvy, informed hunters who know what they want and at what price). And that is only the beginning.


There are still exceptions, of course, though no one can know even their futures. Retailers with regional franchises who are truly omnichannel (integrating strategies across ecommerce and stores and appealing to different segments differently and adopting locally effective tactics), staffing firms who can successfully tap into and oversee the sources of labor as communities, truly understand changing (large) client needs in real time and have the software to do what is required by both business and regulation in a fraction of what it takes their competitors. These translate into high switching costs for the clients.  


In an era in which pre-employment screening was expensive, took a long time and often had errors, one business owner had a ream: automate much of the manual processes, introduce process engineering to cut errors and cycle time, spend capital on advanced computers, and software, hire the best people. He wrote a lot of big checks without a guarantee of success but a fear of being disrupted if he did not. 

Over time, he outgrew many of his small competitors and was able to acquire a number of them, capturing their business and over time, achieving the savings of near national scale and integration He became the low cost producer serving major corporations. He made win/win deals with municipal sources of data, knowing that if anyone else got their first they would have a sustainable advantage. His new product group was prolific, identifying some that provided unique services to the majority of clients and other products that served entirely new customer bases. 

As the business matured, as the internet came of age, he took it further: establishing capability in India and the Philippines, integrating the platforms in the U.S. and off-shore, using the web for all services and most customer interactions. Recently, he has been working on client self-service opportunities. It is much more difficult for a new entrant or competitor to disrupt his business. He has made sure of that. 

Banks and investors, whom he had been courting along the way lined up to court him and enable him to take considerable money off the table. 


The message is clear: incremental thinking may take the business to a highly vulnerable place — disruption by new kinds of competitors. 

What are you doing to be the disrupter rather than the disrupted?

This article is the basis for a conversation this morning with Jim Blasingame, leading expert in small business, master of the brain trust for small business and the host of:

Small Business Advocate


That’s just my view. What’s yours?




Succeeding Yourself Out of Business

Wed, Feb 25, 2015



This is the tale of an entrepreneur who had an idea. He assembled a “crack” senior team, secured blue chip clients, trained recruits and built a company of 30+ professionals which necessitated moving to offices with greater space. He had even negotiated a line of credit with the bank. And invested his own capital in the company. Clients were satisfied. People were productive. Notwithstanding advice to the contrary, the entrepreneur did not know his daily cash flows or balances. As business schools teach: most businesses fail because they are undercapitalized. As venture capital companies teach, an entrepreneur must know cash flows and balances all the time and must be in perennial fund-raising mode. This entrepreneur kept responding to demand, even considering opening an office in another city (but delaying it for reasons having to do with local people).


This tale does not yet have an ending. It is a continuing saga from month to month. However, one day the entrepreneur found out that his largest client would not pay its bill for a period well beyond what he expected. The funds were tied up with other suppliers’ funds. A second client made an error in sending (authorized) payment which never arrived. And then one Monday the  entrepreneur found he could not make the imminent Friday payroll. He asked the bank to increase the line of credit. They said they would be it might take 30 days. He was personally pretty much tapped out. He borrowed from good friends. They made deposits which fortunately cleared quickly. This bought about two weeks.

What To Do Next

Furlough staff? Ask the senior team to reduce compensation for 30 days? Ask for emergency funding from one client in return for something of value? Delay start of some projects? Factor the receivables? These are just a starting list of thoughts as there are constraints endemic to the business. But drastic thinking is required until there is a cushion. 

The Path Not Taken

What should be standard procedure? Every business needs a cash flow projection, cash in and cash out for the next 12 months with monthly if not weekly balances. “Hot spots” of low or negative cash should be marked. The cash flow projection should be re-done for several different sets of assumptions that drive the results: revenues, hiring, capital spending, taxes. The growth plan and timing of expenditures should be tailored to what the cash will support.

Presuming the owner has some relationship with a lender (if not, they should nurture one) and some standing balance on account (bankers warm to “compensating balances”), presuming the owner has intentionally borrowed small sums and paid them back on time, a conversation with the banker should examine the projections and anticipate needs for borrowing several quarters in advance.

This article is the basis for a conversation this morning with Jim Blasingame, the leading expert on small business, author of the powerful book Age of the Customer and my friend. I urge you to visit his website:

Small Business Advocate 

 That’s just my view. What’s yours? If you like the article tell your friends. If not, tell me. 


What Made jack welch JACK WELCH

How Ordinary People Become
Extraordinary Leaders

by Stephen H. Baum (Random House)

Most leaders of American companies started out as ordinary people. What prepared them for the top job?

Countless more ordinary people of equal talent never developed the leadership core required to run the show. Why not?

"Lessons for life about the core leadership traits of character, risk taking decisiveness and the ability to engage and inspire followers."
--Jim Clifton, CEO, The Gallup Organization


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