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TPL Insights: Building Peak-Performance Cultures #47 – Why Reframing the Question is So Important, Especially at the End of 2020

December 24, 2020


Rob Andrews

Start with the Why

Simon Sinek says that leaders and companies that start with “Why” are infinitely more able to inspire and engage stakeholders than others. They also make better decisions, formulate better strategy, and execute better. Sinek says that all leaders know what they do, some know how they do it, but precious few know why. He refers to what he calls the Golden Circle, with “Why” in the bullseye, “How” in the middle ring, and “What” in the outer ring. Most leaders, says Sinek, think, act, and communicate from the outside in. Inspired leaders and organizations, those who build greatness, disruptive products, strategies, and cultures of peak performance think from the inside out. They start with “Why.”

We have been in business for almost 25 years and much of our business comes from referrals. One great friend of the firm, an investment banker who has referred mountains of business to us over eighteen years, said to the CEO of a global industrial company: “The reason I keep sending my clients to Allen Austin, instead of to one of the big firms, where my best friend and business schoolmate runs the Houston office, is that I am absolutely confident that regardless of which consultant runs the search or leadership engagement, they are going to go through a disciplined line of questioning, inquiry, and process that extracts from the client exactly what they are trying to accomplish and who and what they need to get there.” Many of our opening questions begin with “Why”.

In working with leaders inside and outside or large and small organizations over four decades, I’ve determined that Sinek is absolutely right. Most of us think from the outside of the Golden Circle in: “What” first, “How” second. Many never get to the “Why”. And therein lies the rub. If we don’t carefully consider the “Why”, we will often miss the point. We will miss the opportunity to consider why we’re in business in the first place, why we exist, why we’re embarking on a new initiative, why we’re restructuring our business, why we’re hiring a new executive, or why we’re staying the course.

The “Why” is a critical element in properly framing every important question. For many years, I was a part of the Vistage community. Vistage is a for-profit organization that recruits senior leaders they call Chairs, who have the skills and attributes necessary to recruit CEOs into peer groups that meet once a month to support one another, challenge assumptions, and process one another’s issues. Major advantages to being a part of a Vistage group include having a safe container in which you can share concerns, challenges, and options, exposure to speakers who bring outside expertise, and having two hours of one-on-one time each month with a Chair, who, in most cases, serves as coach and confidant.

Vistage Chairs are taught to facilitate a process that helps CEOs get clear about exactly why and what they are trying to accomplish. While relatively straightforward, it is a game-changing methodology I’ve seen reframe countless critical questions, thereby sharpening and improving the ultimate outcome. Typically, afternoons are reserved for processing important issues that have been served up in advance by member CEOs. Two hours are reserved. All members must be fully present and no cell phones, side conversations, or multitasking is allowed.

Issue processing at a typical Vistage meeting is a structured and disciplined activity. That way, members who present a business problem are assured they’ll receive actionable feedback from colleagues. I’ve heard members say the proceeding is like having their own private board of advisors. To make sure issue processing is comprehensive in “attacking” all angles, they first address several statements and share the results with others. All issues fit into one of three categories:

Is the issue a…

  1. Problem to be solved
  2. Decision to be made
  3. Action plan to be developed

Members begin by completing the following:

  1. How do I…
  2. The issue/opportunity is …
  3. It is important because …
  4. My goal is …
  5. Relevant background information is …
  6. The options I have considered are …
  7. I am afraid that …
  8. The help I would like from the group is …

After the CEO’s presentation to the group, member CEOs have a specified period of time, usually 45 minutes, to ask clarifying questions. During this period, suggestions and/or solutions are not allowed, only clarifying questions. In my experience, more than half of the clarifying questions start with “Why”. After 45 minutes or so of issue processing, the CEO is given the opportunity to reframe his/her original question. I have been present for no fewer than 300 of these issue processing sessions and never seen the central question remain unchanged.

When we begin a C-level search or strategic leadership engagement, the first questions we ask are all about the “Why”? Why do you want to re-explore your purpose? Why do you feel a need to unify your leadership? Why are you embarking on an initiative to improve communications? Why are you replacing a key executive? And the list goes on. If we don’t ask the right questions, the answers don’t matter. Starting with “Why” and asking the right questions, leads to challenging antiquated assumptions and much better solutions. The end of 2020 is a great time to reframe our critical questions.

Allen Austin exists to fulfill its purpose, which is to enhance the lives and effectiveness of our associates, clients, and stakeholders. Our solutions are focused on assisting clients in building cultures of peak performance, through our retained search and leadership advisory practices. Please give us a call if we may assist in any way, or if you’d just like a thought partner.

Warmest Regards,








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