Bill Arhos died recently. While his name is not a household word across the country, his progeny certainly is for he was the founder of the longest running live musical show on PBS television Austin City Limits. As was noted in his obituary in the New York Times (NYT) this show “introduced much of America to the sound of redneck rock and progressive country and prompted Austin, Tex., to proclaim itself the “Live Music Capital of the World.”” Indeed one can draw a straight line from Austin City Limits to Sixth Street to SXSW. Arhos began this journey by focusing on one question, “What was the most visible cultural product of Austin?” and to him the answer was Music.
Arhos’ question introduces today’s theme because it is often said that one of the key skills a person needs to be good leader is the skill of listening. However, in a recent article in Fast Company magazine, entitled “The man of many questions”. Brian Grazer and Charles Fishman wrote about a different skill they believe is a critical element to effective leadership. They believe “the right query is the key to success.” The article is a short piece about their upcoming book From a Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life. I found their article to have some interesting insights for the Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) or compliance practitioner.
Grazer is a well-known and successful Hollywood producer, involved with such movies as Splash, A Beautiful Mind and Cinderella Man. He believes that much of the success he has achieved is because he asks lots of questions. Indeed the authors write, “Questions are a great management tool.” This is because “Asking questions elicits information” and it also “creates the space for people to raise issues they are worried about that a boss, or colleagues, may not know about.” Further, by asking questions, you allow “people to tell a different story than the one you’re expecting.” Finally, and perhaps most significantly, they said, “Most important from my perspective, asking questions means people have to make their case for the way they want a decision to go.”
Getting your employees to not simply talk to you but tell you the truth about how they feel or what they may be thinking is a key skill for any leader. As a CCO, you may find this particularly difficult in far-flung reaches of an international company, which is subject to the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), UK Bribery Act or other anti-bribery/anti-corruption law. Whether you are performing a risk assessment or simply getting out of the corporate home office, you need to be able to engage employees across the globe and from a variety of cultures.
The authors suggest asking open-ended questions so you will not simply get a Yes/No answer. While the questions they discussed using related to Grazer’s work in the movie business, I found them a good starting point for any CCO or compliance practitioner, “What are you focused on? Why are you focused on that? What are you worried about? What is your plan?” By asking these or other questions, such as “What are you hoping for? What are you expecting? What’s the most important part of this for you?” as a leader, you can get much more engagement from the people with whom you work.
Say you are pursuing a high profit deal in a high-risk geographic area. You might want to sit down with the business unit person in charge of the project and ask him/her, what is your plan to sign this contract and execute it, consistent with your obligations within the company’s FCPA compliance program? As the authors’ note, “You’re doing two things just by asking the questions: You’re making it clear that she should have a plan, and you’re making it clear that she is in charge of that plan. The question itself implies both the responsibility for the problem and the authority to come up with the solution.” This type of approach allows those who so desire to step up, as “It’s a simple quality of human nature that people prefer to choose to do things rather than be ordered to do them.”
Equally important are the values you can transmit by asking questions. If you do have to fly to China or some other local office, you do not want to be seen as the US corporate executive coming to deliver some bad news or that costs need to be cut. By asking questions you can solicit ideas to help solve problems. The authors state, “Questions create both the authority in people to come up with ideas and take action and the responsibility for moving things forward. Questions create space for all kinds of ideas and the sparks to come up with those ideas. Most important, questions send a very clear message: We’re willing to listen, even to ideas or suggestions or problems we weren’t expecting.” The authors dispel the notion this is some Hollywood ‘touchy-feely’ management style by stating “This isn’t about being “warm’ or “friendly”.” Further showing curiosity by asking questions is not simply a “matter of style.”
Near the end of their articles the authors make clear that the need to ask questions goes both up and down. They state, “As valuable as questions are when you’re the boss, I think they are just as important in every other direction in the workplace. People should ask their bosses questions. I appreciate it when people ask me the same kind of open-ended questions that I so often ask.” If employees feel comfortable enough to ask these questions, it can “allow a boss to be clear about things that the boss might think are clear, but which often aren’t clear at all.” They also rather interestingly observed that if a person asks a question, “then they almost always listen to the answer. People are more likely to consider a piece of advice, or a flat-out instruction, if they’ve asked for it in the first place.”
Just as Arhos’ question asked over 40 years ago led to a cultural phenomenon; you too can use Grazer’s techniques to improve not only your leadership qualities in the compliance function but your organization’s compliance function as well. The reason that asking questions is so much better than simply giving orders is that you have a vast talented workforce you can tap into to help you do business in compliance. But the how of doing a business process that is, or should be, burned into your company can be facilitated by possibilities that are out there in your employees’ minds. To get at them you have to ask questions. The authors end their Fast Times article with the following two lines which sums up what you need to create as a leader, “But nobody is afraid to ask a question. Nobody is afraid to answer a question.”
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© Thomas R. Fox, 2015