The Fifth Question


It is 11:01 am and the managers meeting begins surprisingly on time and in a relaxed but energetic atmosphere. The gestures between the different participants confirm something that I already know: they know each other well, there is a feeling of trust between them, they can anticipate each other’s movements. The company, a —let’s say—  well established national distributor in its home city and with some 200 collaborators, is managed by this team that has already demonstrated its professionalism and orientation towards results. Indeed, the area managers’ profile is not a problem. Many of them have a background in larger corporations, others are born and raised within the company, but all have been specifically trained in managerial activity. You can see this in the results when evaluating objectives in each area. The meeting goes on as we delve into the different topics that were selected with the purpose of thinking about next year. However, I realize that there is an issue that is being left aside, and I am sure that when it comes up, it will explain many of the other little problems discussed in the meeting. All the topics we discussed are coherent and focused, presented and addressed by the heads of the different areas: that, in principle, is great, it is an example of the work division.

We discussed a couple of goals for 2020 with focus on industry changes, and when we started talking about how we stand for this, the response from all managers was, in unison: “Great”, “totally prepared.”

So, I ask: what is the most important thing right now?

The first response from the commercial manager was “increase sales.”I cross-examine: is that a goal in itself? “Modernize logistics”, “open new branches”, “expand the portfolio”, they say. I look at them and say, “All these priorities are important, but if we have a lot of priorities, we don’t have any priorities.” There has to be one that is the most important. They looked at each other, feeling a little awkward to mention their area as the most important one. So, it occurs to me to show you an example of my own: If in six months or a year they were to achieve only one thing, what would it be for the team to feel satisfied? And I continued explaining as if it was a rhetorical question. “Four years ago, you moved. Do you remember what you thought about the whole year before that milestone?” There were a few laughs, but the answer was unanimous: “The move.”

Then, I changed the subject and some of them were kind of frustrated that I brought up that issue. “I saw you here and I felt great satisfaction to see the dynamics of the meeting; to see trust, respect. But I have to talk about the internal environment survey, which says that “managers do not work together.” And I believe that this is because each of you leaves meetings and talks to their own area team, about how to meet those objectives with great effectiveness. That’s why I just asked about the objectives. They only mentioned area objectives, at the most, sales objectives that, of course, impact the bottom line, but they do not constitute a true common objective, a “motto”. Then, I asked again: “Outside of core business, what brings you all together as a management team?”

Timidly, the diagnoses, the needs, the longer-term vision began to appear, and ends up crystallizing in an expression: “Expand geographically”. After a while, the motto was taking shape: what do we want? Increase our footprint by 100 km.

Sometimes, for those of us who train under the paradigm of a SMART objective, it is counterintuitive to set a qualitative goal, almost a slogan rather than a goal.

The common goal should be a topic, something that must be achieved or resolved and, its metric, its specificity, arises from the praxis of each area. So, yes, each area contributes the flavor, color and number it requires. What operations do I need to cover 100 more kilometers for the market? What do I need from human resources? What am I going to measure in customer service? What about shopping?

The question arises within the management team, made up from what they hear from their surroundings in 360° (customer, market, employee), but it goes back to the company team to make sense of it. Each action, from the creation of this goal, of this mantra, becomes relevant in light of the common goal. We begin to study each metric, each need, each project systematically in light of our common goal. Does it bring us closer to him? It is a priority. Doesn’t it bring us closer? It can wait.

This adoption even modifies the meeting scheme: each one brings what is important to them, measured from the view of our thematic objective, and they continue monitoring the usual objectives of business operation. From such obviousness, arises only one great benefit: clarity. That clarity like when Lencioni questions us with his six questions, contributes to this fifth question: “What is the most important thing right now?”

In short, we gain clarity because in the next period this objective is thematic:

1) It brings together all managers with the name of “company executive.”

2) Optimizes our actions before, during and after meetings, we know what to talk about, how we can all evaluate by contributing to all areas, and not just our own. 

Dissolve islands and build bridges.

3) And, as a consequence, we communicate more clearly to the entire organization. The salesperson who meets with the administration will identify that there is one same objective that both of them aim for from their own areas: it is their own managers who will speak to their areas from a common priority.

A company with clarity works more easily and fluidly than a company without clarity, and this arises from distinguishing priorities, among other things.

When answering these crucial questions for the clarity of the company in the board, we bring down three fundamental aspects: cohesion (a close and lasting union based on mutual knowledge), an aligned view of the company itself, and focus on simple and concrete aspects. For the small price of answering some questions as a team, choosing a priority and acting accordingly. And trust me, it’s almost easy!