• 03 Nov 2011
  • What Do You Think?

The Ultimate Question in Management

Summing Up: Many of Jim Heskett's readers this month offered suggestions for the ultimate question in management. What's yours?
by James Heskett

Summing Up

Is the Ultimate Question, Why?

What might be called the "ultimate question exercise" this month yielded a number of interesting responses. First, nearly everyone was willing to play the game in suggesting their own favorite ultimate questions for managers. Nominees took on several forms. But many proposed questions were clustered around inquiries about willingness to recommend, trust, and authenticity.

Among suggested questions that managers might ask of themselves were: "What positive, relevant impact can I make?" (from Clinton Coker), "How do you continuously inspire the passion and confidence for every employee to perform their role at the expected level or better?" (from Barry Cohen), "Will the world be a better place if I do my job well?" (from Mo Bjornestad), "Do you want this position so you can serve—or so you can be served?" (from David Witt), "What are you doing to enhance (your) … company's, (your) … team's, (your) … organization's development"? (constructed from comments by Marlis Krichewsky), and "What are you doing for others?" (from Dennis Hopwood). One of the more interesting questions of this type was proposed by Pete DeLisi: "Do you make your people feel like they want to be a better man or woman?"

Favorite "ultimate" questions that managers could ask of their reports included several adherents to "Do you trust your boss?" However, Peter Bowie observed that "fundamental to trust is integrity so I would build the foundation on integrity." Other favorites included "the extent to which I feel my manager or my organization is being real with me (… doing what it says on the tin)" (from Jackie Le Fevre), "Does our value system determine the behavior of management or does the behavior of management determine our value system? (from Athan Sunderland), "Is (our) … organization a place where balanced risks can be taken without causing too much career retardation?" (from Yadeed Lobo), and "Is my manager characterized by authenticity and passion?" (implied by a response from Harry Abrikian). Steve Sheinkopf would alter the process to insure that he receives feedback only from his "A players, not by the Bs (or Cs)."

The coauthors of The Ultimate Question 2.0 weighed in as well with some background on their choice of "How likely is it you would recommend us to a friend?" as the ultimate question. Fred Reichheld put it this way in describing the question behind the question: "our candidate for the ultimate question in business (and in life) is: Have we treated others … with dignity and honor—in a manner consistent with the Golden Rule?" And Rob Markey pointed out that "Trust does lie at the heart of someone's likelihood to recommend …" He went on to say that "we have always advocated pairing the likelihood to recommend question with what is perhaps even more important: 'Why?'" So is the ultimate question really "Why?"? What do you think?

Original Article

The publication this month of The Ultimate Question 2.0 (revised from an earlier edition) provides us with an opportunity to ask ourselves just what is the ultimate question in management.

In their book, Fred Reichheld and Rob Markey remind us of the simplicity of the Net Promoter Score (NPS). It's the product of answers to one question, "How likely is it you would recommend us to a friend?" The NPS has become so popular that, as a customer, you quite likely have been asked that question in the past couple of months. Those replying with a 9 or 10 (the most positive) on an 11-point scale (0 to 10) are "promoters"; a 7 or 8 labels you as a "passive"; and anything from a 0 to a 6 makes you a "detractor." Subtract the proportion of detractors from the proportion of promoters and you get a "net promoter score" that can range anywhere from +100 to -100.

And that's it. Tracking the net promoter score, according to the authors, can lead to improvements in both management and performance.

As managers and students of management, we have a tendency to want to simplify things. Evidence of this is the plethora of management books with single word titles such as Accountability, Transparency, and Teamwork. We search for the one key to management success. Based on recent research, I have my own candidate for that "one key thing:" trust. (There's precious little trust in government, Wall Street, and business in general these days.) I found a strong correlation between trust, loyalty, engagement, and "ownership" among employees in a sample of organizations I examined. Respondents in the study made a convincing case that trust was absolutely essential to the successful implementation of policies and practices necessary to implement any strategy. For example, several managers testified to the importance of the relationship between trust and the ability to achieve speed in getting things done. It's a topic that Stephen M. R. Covey wrote persuasively about several years ago in his book, The Speed of Trust. So for me one candidate "ultimate question" would be "Do you trust your manager?" or "Do you trust your organization?"

My study led to an exploration of the underpinnings of trust, as suggested by related survey data. One major determinant is whether a manager or the organization does what it says it will do, whether it lives up to "the deal" on things important to an employee, whether it meets that employee's expectations. So another "ultimate question" might well be "Does your manager do what she says she will do?" or "Does your organization do what it says it will do?"

What is the ultimate question in management? Or do you object to playing this game?--The Net Promoter Score certainly has its detractors. All of these are efforts to provide simple guideposts in a very complex process. Performance measurement can be a confusing process, leading to inaction or, worse yet, inappropriate action. Can an "ultimate question" have a useful management function? If so, what's yours? What do you think?

To Read More:

Stephen M. R. Covey with Rebecca R. Merrill, The Speed of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything (New York: Free Press, 2006).

Fred Reichheld and Rob Markey, The Ultimate Question 2.0 (Revised and Expanded Edition): How Net Promoter Companies Thrive in a Customer- Driven World (Boston: Harvard Business Press, 2011).

Jim Heskett's latest book,The Culture Cycle, was published in September.