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.

    • CJ Cullinane
    This is a very thought provoking question, which I have no solid answer to. The "How likely is it you would recommend us to a friend?" does cover most aspects of a universal question but what about profit and growth?

    As for broad questions as mentioned above: I think they help to expand our knowledge of our organizations and ourselves. Anytime we receive honest feedback from people we deal with it can help us improve and move forward in the right direction. By asking tough questions and listening to the answers we can improve on a consistent basis. Without these tough questions we may stagnate and even decline without ever knowing why.

    I have been asked these questions before and have answered them. Are they effective? Only if we really listen to the answers and then act accordingly.

    • Stephen Basikoti
    All organizations and managers are endowed with both good and bad traits and these traits may seesaw from time to time. Hence, the ultimate question should also incorporate dimensions of time and specialization, to capture the complex and dynamic context involved. I may have trusted my manager last month, but do I still do? Is he continuing to engender trust as new issues emerge? I trust Company A to give me an item that has superior performance, but do I trust them to give me sufficient variety, or this trust is for Company B. I propose adapting the question to, "What do I still trust my manager and my organization for?"
    • Mike Flanagan
    • Corp Purch Mgr
    WOW.... Just a simple word into a question...TRUST? what other word brings such emotion to the surface. If a worker or customer doesn't trust the company they are involved with, then eventually both will leave to go somewhere else. And as a lot of CEO worry about "stakeholder" concerns, this mistrust will lead into every facet of life. Mistrust will blur your integrity, honesty, and even percieved reliability.

    I know of no other question, unless it is to be one that is directed at a specific concern or function.
    • Brian Simpson
    • Customer Care Manager, Templeton and Partners
    Such a tricky question, so chose to think about it from a more generalist perspective, because I believe the following saying impacts positively in a number of areas.

    There is a saying... Educations purpose, is to change a closed mind, into an open one...

    As managers, we spend a lot of time influencing the attitude and behaviour of others. Managers a lot of the time, are viewed as people who don't listen, or won't listen. And even pride can get in the way of managers accepting that someone else has a better idea because as human beings we tend to get the defensive when challenged. We always think we're right, don't we ?

    Creating an environment where people are encouraged to challenge and managers are willing to listen and be corrected, will result in a number of additional benefits such as improved relations, trust, motivation, teamwork innovation and courage to name just a few.

    I'd like to finish by offering some empathy towards both the challenger and challenged in this scenario...

    "It takes courage to stand up and speak, but it also takes courage to sit down and listen..."
    • Anonymous
    The key for management success is successfull end to end delivery of information of the product or service to the needy(customers).
    • Sherpa
    If incivility is condoned or promoted within any organization, even for a moment, success of any kind will be a fleeting thing. Is incivility allowed on your watch?
    • Rob Markey
    • Partner, Bain & Company

    In the research that led us to choose the likelihood to recommend question as the basis for the Net Promoter system, we tested a large number of potential questions. Trust does lie at the heart of someone's likelihood to recommend -- their decision to brand themselves with a company or product.

    As you know from reading The Ultimate Question 2.0, the Net Promoter score itself is just the starting point for the Net Promoter system. In the book, we lay out the other elements of the system. For example, we have always advocated pairing the likelihood to recommend question with what is perhaps even more important: "Why?"

    We also demonstrate how the sophisticated users of the system create a true closed-loop among customers, the employees who shape their experience of the products and services, and the management team. By sharing detailed, granular feedback among all these important groups, we have found the Net Promoter system does, in fact, create the opportunity (though not a guarantee) for growing trust among all of them.

    While the Net Promoter system is grounded in a philosophy of radical simplicity in feedback (for the benefit of inspiring action by employees and reducing the burden on customers), it also consists of a fairly sophisticated approach to managing that feedback, learning from it, and taking action on it.
    • Gaurav Goel
    • DGM, RCom
    In my opinion, Imagination, common sense, passion and ambition are ingredients that are required for a manager to lead her team to great heights in these complex times.

    For the sake of simplicity and to be able to focus efforts of diverse motivations towards a common goal, we can identify specific things that matter most in a given context. But, I don't think that we can have a generalized ultimate question that fits in all situations.
    • Fred Reichheld
    • former student
    Hi Jim,

    Thanks for mentioning our new book. This so-called revised edition contains over 70% new content. Those who do read the book will discover that our candidate for the ultimate question in business (and in life) is: Have we treated others (customers, employees, investors, ...) with dignity and honor--in a manner consistent with the Golden Rule? This is a complex quesion indeed, but we consistently find that "likelihood to recommend" is the best shorthand method to understand where we have succeeded, and where we have failed. This simple scoring process opens up the possibility for systematic learning--and management. Your class at HBS had an enormous influence on my thinking. Thank you!
    • Ravindra Edirisooriya
    • Senior Accounting and Finance Major, Missouri Southern State University
    Professor Heskett has raised another timely question about the management function. In order to find the ultimate question in management, three other questions need to be answered. First: What ails our businesses /governments /societies, the objects of management? Second: What ails the managers of these objects of management? Third: What ails our methods of management? Each question will lead us to other questions that will finally allow us deduce the ultimate question in management.

    First: What ails our businesses /governments /societies, the objects of management?

    This question leads us to another question: What are the goals or objectives of our businesses /governments /societies?

    According to Keynesian principles, the ultimate goal of business is to make profits (lots of it) for its shareholders, with no conditions attached in the short-term (no long-term consideration - classical economics). Was demographic impact of doing business an issue? Was environmental impact of doing business an issue? What technological (frontier) advancements were expected? Keynes probably did not assume the world we live in today. Therefore, it is unwise to seek profit for shareholders at all costs in the short-term. It begs the question: What mechanisms will truly work to change the basis of profit?

    The governments have come a long way in human history. It was natural for humans to be governed. Governments set up rules, regulations, law and order, penal codes, tax and welfare systems to govern the citizens. The conditions at the bottom of the "human pecking order" have become so intolerable and unlivable today and it points to failures of our governments (both Republican and Democratic: one little more than the other). Can we the people come up with a system of government that can account for all of its citizens, especially those of us forgotten in the bottom of the "human pecking order"?

    Humans follow Maslow's hierarchy of needs. At the basic level, if the bodily needs of food, clothing and shelter of humans low down in the "human pecking order" cannot be met in today's society, then that will transform them to seek meaningful social change by every means possible, which is not unthinkable given the "Occupy Wall Street" and other similar protests all over American Cities (and the world). Can the (contemporary) society come up with new norms to redress the grievances of us forgotten in the bottom of the" human pecking order"?

    Second: What ails the managers of these objects of management?

    Most of the mangers (selected by their ilk) belong to the managerial class by action and those in business, government and society (civic and religious leaders) "scratch each other's backs" and they naturally want to preserve the (wealth and power distribution) status quo of the current system. It takes good care of their needs and their hefty (some times more than what their entrepreneurship is worth) managerial incomes. Most of the mangers will do what is legal but not necessarily what is ethical (Wall Street Meltdown)? Can the mangers be made not only legally responsible but also more ethically responsible for their actions?

    Third: What ails our methods of management?

    Schools of management have come a long way into new real-time computer information systems based management fueled by the ever growing power and (cheap) availability of computers, computer networks and the internet. However, the management methods have not recognized the shifting of the paradigm of every citizen working for a wage to support self and family. The paradigm worked because innovation was the key to profits. Entrepreneurs with innovative ideas created new businesses with mass employment opportunities. Future entrepreneurs will create AI based automated (hyper) production systems with very few employees if at all (no room for mass employment). A second paradigm that is shifting (or will shift) is innovation driven by profits to innovation driven by service to humanity and survival of the human species (not profit) in the future. Can the management come up with a new business paradigm (or the governments shall come up with new social contracts with their citizens) t
    o employ citizens who are kicked out of the workforce or who lack employment opportunities in the workforce (due to structural shifts of the economy)?

    What is the ultimate question in management?

    What actions could "smart" mangers take to be more ethically responsible in their actions which may cure (address), ameliorate (or make irrelevant?) the ailments in the objects and methods of management?

    Recently, a Libertarian professor of law argued why (wealth) inequality is good in the society (in America). His main argument was that inequality creates the desire to innovate. Therefore tax cuts to the rich (he assumed that rich innovates more than the poor) and deregulation of industries will create inequality and spur innovation, respectively. The ensuing job creation and rising living standards will benefit all citizens. Is the professor's assumption that rich innovates more than the poor correct? It is probably true in the short-term. Can tax cuts for the rich spur innovation? Probably yes but not necessarily. Is this kind of innovation sustainable in the long-term if the industries are deregulated? I suppose the professor wants us all to be dead in the long-term.

    According to the professor, President Abraham Lincoln once said "The poor cannot be made rich by making the rich poor." What did Abe mean by poor? What did Abe mean by rich? What did Abe mean by making the poor rich? What did Abe mean by making the rich poor? Does asking for a couple of more dollars as taxes from the rich make them rich poor?
    • Paul
    • Chippendale, Minessence Group
    The Neurobiology of Trust by Paul Zak is worth a read. It reinforces the points being made here:
    • Tom Dolembo
    • Founder, New North Institute
    Trust gets my vote. Up or down, yes or no. No scales. Purely subjective, from the heart. We are incrementally scored and quantified endlessly from credit to life cycle, ACT to GMAT to Security. In the end, it only matters who we ultimately trust unconditionally, zero or all-in, no increments. The tragedy remains that we are learning not to trust every meaningful institution and business out there.
    • Partner, Humber, Mundie & McClary
    Life is not made up of many binary issues (except, perhaps, in the ER). Therefore, would you accept an amendment to your ultimate question that makes it, "TO WHAT EXTENT do you trust your manager/organization?"
    • Barry Cohen
    • Principal consultant,
    Here is my ultimate question. How do you continuously inspire the passion and confidence for every employee to perform their role at the expected level or better?

    To do this well, companies must have a shared vision throughout the organization. Teams in all functional areas must feel empowered and enabled. The team must feel inspired despite economic uncertainty, competitive pressures and a myriad of obstacles that can get in the way from time to time.
    • Peter Bowie
    This is a diffcult question given the many complexities of human behaviour as well as cultural differences between organizations. But, fundamentally, the nature of a leader's interactions with others will ultimately determine the character of an organization. Trust is critical to sustaining relationships that will drive a positive, innovative and productive environment. However, fundamental to trust is intergrity so I would build the foundation on integrity.
    • Marlis Krichewsky
    • researcher, Centre d'Innovation et de Recherche en P?dagogie de Paris
    Managers should be development enhancing: their companies' , their team's, their organization's development.
    There are forces of death and forces of life. GOOD managers are more on the life side which means CSR, listening, impulsing positive tendencies in people and seizing and creating opportunities.
    A good manager is a man (woman) of wisdom (reflection + Imagination + critical thinking) and of action (seizing the right moment, the kairos, endowed with the intelligence of the situation or m?tis and self-confident without narcissism). Such managers are rare, but I met some. And every one of them has his/her own singular style and ways. There is no one best model !
    • Pete DeLisi
    • President, Organizational Synergies
    There's a great scene in the movie, "As Good as It Gets," in which Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt are in a fancy restaurant. Jack is being his movie-style, obsessive-compulsive, obnoxious self, and Helen completely disgusted with his recent, insulting comment to her says, "I want you to pay me one compliment." Jack responds with, "You make me want to be a better person." Helen's facial reaction is absolutely brilliant, as we now see her elicit a new-found warmth for this person across the table.

    My ultimate management question is, "Do you make your people feel like they want to be a better man or woman?" If you think about it, this is different than saying, "Do you inspire your people?"
    • Jackie Le Fevre
    • Director, Magma Effect
    Absolutely agree that Trust is huge - colleagues may be interested in the Index of Leadership Trust developed in the UK

    Another one worder that would have resonance for me and perhaps is a prerequisite for being able to trust is "authenticity" - the extent to which I feel my manager or my organisation is being real with me (living professed values - doing what it says on the tin).
    • Clinton Coker
    • Director, SunGard Global Services
    One question that can better drive performance of all organizations is - "What positive, relevant impact can I make?"
    • Terry K. Gilliam
    • General Managing Partner, Synecticsworld, Inc.
    Why do people care whether or not we are in business?
    • Mo Bjornestad
    • CEO, Safetfirst Corporation
    Personal dynamics, trust, and, recognition, financial reward, are trumped by level of control while striving for a meaningful vision with an achievable mission.

    And, the quality of the vision, important, is not as critical as having control over achieving the mission.

    Most authors begin the more complex internal relationships and processes, with, if any, token attention to social context.

    I suggest job performance and satisfaction have more to do with "Will the world be a better place if I do my job well?"

    And even less attention is given to another major factor in performance, and ultimately, satisfaction, and that is outside-of-work personal dynamics.

    Are the people your employee cares about safe? Are they working / worrying two jobs: one at work, and one at home as a remote care giver, and perhaps also trying to keep the family safe when loved ones are exposed to risks, alone.

    The employer who knows the issues, acknowledges other demands frees the employee to address both needs, and can provide the peace of mind that allows high performance.

    Consider that small adjustments to outside of work dynamics can add to the control that leads to performance and satisfaction. One common example: have a plan for school breaks, emergencies, sick days, that gives the employee choices for how to meet home and work objectives.

    I am glad to answer questions, I am not interesting in defending my observations.

    Mo Bjornestad
    SafeTFirst Corporation
    • Vincent Fong
    • Program Manager, Nielsen
    The key question on my mind has always been: "Why are we still doing what we are doing, is there a more strategically significant organisation activity we have overlooked because of innade organisation or cultural bias - no necessarily technology related?"
    • Vincent Fong
    • Program Manager, Nielsen
    The key question on my mind has always been: "Why are we still doing what we are doing, is there a more strategically significant organisation activity we have overlooked because of innade organisation or cultural bias - not necessarily technology related?"
    • Dr. S A Visotsky
    • Chairman & CEO, Vitech Group LLC
    Mr. Edirisooriya,
    Wow, very philisophical, while coming nowhere near the question asked. When you leave school and spend 40+ years in this industry, you may understand what that means.

    Organizations change, and with that change comes new focus. There are fundamentals that stay the same. You have to become an industry chameleon to master the situation. If you are allergic to change and sacrifice, there's always McDonalds.

    Somewhere along the line, this all got way to flexible. In the old days, you had performance standards. Didn't hit the target, out the door you went. Too many hugs now and not enough accountability.
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    In my view untainted focus and clear vision are two traits for managers to have besides trust which has been emphasised by James Heskett. Management is a complex phenomena and it is hard to pinpoint a single most important facet. Integrity, honesty,
    truthfulness, self control, helping attitude and self accountability are some other desirables. On the whole, one has to be humane, kind and balanced. The manager's spirit to achieve organisational goals by involving the entire team is also important.
    My answer to the query raised would boil down to dignified haman approach to whatever is encountered without sacrificing the achievement of all targets.
    • Murray Burt
    • CFO, Silver Unicorn Trading
    Not the trust employees have in their organisation, rather the trust CEO's have of their people energises the people to achieve.
    Research by Hofstede so long ago identifying the destructive effects of high power distance (low trust) on companies and entire economies has already identified the one single measure of success of which trust and NPS are symptoms.
    Jim Collins said roughly the same thing in one of his talks on what makes for long term success. What he found was companies exceeded competitors where the CEO was a comaprative novice and therefore was forced to rely on people to achieve on his behalf, i.e. a CEO forced into a low power distance relationship.
    Ego makes too much noise in the individual and given his CEO position, in the organisation too, which alienates people from the organisational goal.
    • Atul Guglani
    • Director, Mantex Technologies
    I have a small poster on my office wall.

    " Trust is the Basis for Everything in Life"

    And it shows a picture of a circus girl on a swing being thrown from the hands of an upside down performer on the swing to the hands of another upside down performer on the other swing with no safety net down. Perhaps, as a kid, we all saw this circus performance.

    I tell my managers, the girl chooses to swing away from one safe hands into the other one, because she "Trusts" that other safe hand will hold her at the right time and she would not fall to fatality.

    It is this Trust that you share with the company and the company shares with its employees, customers, stakeholders , debtors, creditors and all associated.

    But does " Trust " make the ultimate question or is the first basic requirement of any enterprise ?

    I would agree with Mr Stephen Basikoti that there is no absolute " Trust " and it is relative to the situation and time and other influencing variables, specially when dealing with human weaknesses.

    In the current situation, I would say, the " The Ultimate Question " will be " Value Viability " meaning Total value as which gives sufficient yield to all associated including stakeholders, employees , customers etc.

    This value will be the Ultimate sum total of all variables , including Trust, Governance, Futuristic, Innovative, Simplistic etc, besides the usual key market indicators.
    • Mahan Khalsa
    • Partner, Ninety Five 5 LLC
    The problem I have with the question is ambiguity: "trust them to do or be what?" Trust them to act in my best interests? Trust them to be honest or ethical? Trust them to be fair (and what is fair?). Recommend can be yes or no (or 1 - 10) easily. Trust is a more complex equivalent.
    • David Witt
    • Program Director, The Ken Blanchard Companies
    I think that the ultimate question in management is, "Do you want this position so you can serve--or so you can be served?"
    Of course if you ask most people this question straight-up, the answer will always be "to serve" in the mind of the applicant, but a closer examination of what is behind the desire to serve is still really an opportunity to accomplish individual goals. For example:

    "I want to take this organization in a new direction."

    "I want to be able to ask anyone on the street who is the number one service provider in our space and hear..."

    "I have a great idea on how to improve things."

    A serving leader, by contrast, will look to serve the goals that the organization wants to achieve.
    This is what Jim Collins referred to as "Level 5" leadership in his book Good to Great.

    It is a combination of fierce resolve and will, combined with humility and a desire to serve the needs of the organization that delivers long term results.

    David Witt
    Program Director, The Ken Blanchard Companies
    Moderator, blog
    • Seena Sharp
    • Principal and Author, Sharp Market Intelligence
    Good decisions.

    Clients, prospects, employees, and other relevant stakeholders (even if you're not public) expect management to make the best decision the first time.

    Too often, when decisions don't deliver as expected, the blame goes to others or to other situations. There are many reasons why decisions disappoint, but it's often unnecessary.

    From my specific position of running a company for 30 years, one of the main reasons for disappointing results is that the decision-makers don't do their due diligence.

    They rely on experience, facts, intuition and assumptions, believing they are current in their knowledge and know best. Yet, when you ask these same people what's changed in their industry or with their customers - in these volatile, uncertain times. they rarely can cite specifics, beyond "the economy."

    It's only after the decision doesn't pan out that they learn what's true today and how they need to adjust their product or service, their strategy, distribution channels, and more.

    If you're a decision-maker, ask yourself if you spend as much time finding out what you need to know to make a smart decision - as the time spent researching a new computer, big screen TV, camera.......

    Seena Sharp
    Sharp Market Intelligence
    Competitive Intelligence Advantage (Wiley)
    • Clifford Francis Baker
    • Chair, Neffel Corp
    If there is a better candidate other than trust as being the ultimate question for every sector of leadership over the entire spectrum of society, I am not aware. As is happening in this day, the creation of mistrust has proven repeatedly over the course of history to be a major instigator of unrest and upheaval.

    To place trust in a person or any type of organization in this era of situational ethics, where it has been the norm for leadership to choose not right over wrong but instead whatever serves the interests of self as individual or as a small group; when it is considered appropriate to choose whatever suites the need of the moment, with the often held belief that the choice is the lesser evil over the greater, trust has become a commodity in low supply. As respect demands being earned, so also does trust.
    • Helen
    But who is the trusted manager? Immediate manager or executive management? People often trust their immediate manager but not executives as they are too far removed. Gets back to basic tribal instincts. Executives are "different".
    • Paul Nicholas
    • Director, Soul-Chaplain Consultancy
    What a fascinating article and discussion!
    As every answer can promote a further question - even if nothing more than "Why? - shouldn't we be looking for the penultimate question?
    But to be serious, I think the "one key thing" is put perfectly as trust - and demonstrated through integrity. The most serious and potentially damaging question in management then becomes to question integrity, and this applies to every individual, organization, system and artefact we interact with.
    • Anonymous
    "Would I want to work for me?" is my personal ultimate question....
    • Frances Pratt
    • Director, Metisan Pty Ltd
    Thanks Jim for this thought provoking article and comments. The replies so far show that trust is key.
    I like and use the NPS in a couple of businesses in which I am involved. It is a great (and simple) way of understanding where your organisation sits. Simple sometimes make people think that it is 'easy', and yet there can be a simplicity beyond complexity, as when we see a skilled dancer - it looks simple, and yet we know that hours of practice has gone into this performance. I think the NPS is like that. It is the dance - but the practice (of mgt) to achieve this is intricate, painstaking and sometimes means making mistakes, picking ourselves up and trying something different.

    I read with interest Rob Markey's comments on how this was chosen and can be further explored. I agree - trust is an ingredient in a recommendation, as if you don't trust the organisation, you don't recommend them for fear of impacting your credibility.

    I have tried using NPS for internal or personal causes and find it a little wanting. For example as a manager of people; can you ask 'How likely would you be to recommend me as a manager to a friend?' Maybe you can ... but to me there may be something a little glib in this for deeper appraisal.

    I am very much connected with the sales profession and know that trust and rapport are key to any customer relationship. The NPS can be used once someone has experienced your business, but I feel it does not help one guage how they are going with pre-sales conversations.
    However, I often use the theme of trust when mentoring sales people. Often a sales person is a good reader of people, and I ask them to look for verbal and non-verbal cues as to how they are faring on the 'trust barometer'. Without trust, the person won't buy and then don't have the opportunity to recommend positively.
    • Nanda Kumar M. K.
    • NA, NA
    Accountability, Transparency, and Teamwork are good indicators.

    Given the recent financial failures, I may add that a modified underpinnings of trust but verify (good guidance by the former President Reagan) as a metric, among others will be a good policy to include during implementation of strategy through polices, procedures and engagement in all functions by the aspiring corporate powers-to-be.
    • Farhan Rasheed
    • EHS & Security Team Leader, Olayan Kimberly Clark
    My thoughts are, a combination of TRUST & FAITH. To Trust your organisation & your Manager is always there but if you do not have any Faith; Trust alone will not keep you going. Trust & Faith may sound same but for me when you have Faith in the organisation, your manager & your teams; you tend to be more positive in every aspect. Trust will be built upon 'actions' from others while Faith will develop inside yourself based on your perceptions.
    • Ravindra Edirisooriya
    • Senior Accounting and Finance Major, Missouri Southern State University
    Is "trust" the ultimate question in management? Why or why not? The more ethically responsible are mangers in their actions, the more trustworthy they are in their actions. Hence, trust is a good candidate for the ultimate question of management. Trust is the dependent variable of a function which includes ethical responsibility (among other independent variables). However, a counter example would point to trust not being a good candidate for the ultimate question in management. The citizens ask "Why did it take so long to be detected?" in the unfolding Pen State abuse scandal. The answer is that every manager "trusted' his superior to do the "right thing" and none of the subordinates showed any ethical responsibility of looking after the well being of the minors involved. Hence, trust is not trustworthy to be the ultimate question in management.
    • Harry
    • IT Manager
    Trust is critical but not in itself sufficient. People will follow a leader they have previously committed to. In my experience commitment and loyalty are much more pervasive than people think. I believe you have to ask a lot from people and be prepared to do the same to gain trust and commitment. After you succeed once, losing the loyalty, commitment and trust is almost as tough getting it in the first place.
    • Charles Mwale MBA, MPA
    • CEO, Vision Leadership Institute International
    Management Sucess is dependent on the complex combination of abilities or attributes of the leader, necessary to execute organizational goals. Examples of such attributes include; executive intelligence-as Menkes suggests; organizational skills; communication skills; organization skills and execution abilities etc.
    • Steve
    • Sheinkopf, CEO
    I do not object to the NPS or would not anyway with one exception. After all, the first order of business for leaders is your team and its evaluation.

    I just want to be evaluated by the A players, not by the Bs I have to manage to As and the Cs who have to find a differen place to work

    • Anonymous
    GO SEE!

    Find out what is really happening in the other persons/process owners real world! Show you care by being involved with them! Build work plans and solutions together. Are you living to far away from the real issues?

    ASK WHY!

    Gain a real understanding of what is happening and why, when one why...doesn't work keep asking until the question is not answered, then you might be getting somewhere. Understanding root causes and working towards real solutions, shows true commitment to team members. It also allows management to do what they say!


    Most importantly, always be respectful of anothers position in life. Just because we are managers it doesn't make us any better than another showing respect one doesn't need to worry about being truthful or trustworthy. Work together for a common goal and solve problems together preferably at the lowest level of the organization with the guidance of a mentor and while always maintaining pertinence to the scientific method at the core of the issue.

    Doing these things will lead to, a safer work environment, higher quality, better relationships. better ideas, completion of goals, defined metrics, engaged employees, no layoffs, a valued workforce, elimination of waste...yes, there are eight of them, and last but obviously not least...higher profits while using less resources! Sounds familiar maybe, but it works when done with commitment throughout the organizaition.

    Somtimes we tend to make things to difficult, Simplify!

    Go See! Ask Why! Show Respect!
    • Anonymous
    Can there be an ultimate question for management? It may well depend on the context and perspective of the person asking such a question. I like the simplicity of an article by Peter Drucker that I think was entitled 'Eight Steps of Effective Leadership' where his first premise was "Ask, What needs to be done?"
    • Athan Sunderland
    • President, Val McEvoy Advisory
    Q: Does our value system determine the behavior of management or does the behavior of management determine our value system?

    • Joe Schmid
    • Managing Principal, Oak Leaf Consulting, LLC
    The root cause underlying NPS answers (good or bad) always sorts out as TRUST. While the NPS question is the ultimate question for a "customer"/employee, the ultimate question for management is WHY DO or DON'T they TRUST US? "Do you trust us?" is too direct of a question to ask an employee and get an open and honest answer. So the question to ask is the still the NPS question - "Would you recommend our team/organization/company to a friend?" It's a tough question to ask but a tougher task to act on the answers, particularly when the majority will more than likely be "Passives". The management question then becomes "What to do about content unenthusiastic employees (aka Passives)?" Finding the right answer to that question is the fulcrum of organizational leverage.
    • Bill Milnor
    • Director of Business Processes, Mental Health Center of Denver
    I wonder if there are universal ultimate questions other than those existential ones around meaning purpose and happiness. Most of the others seem to me as more relative to time, place and person, especially toward the uniqueness of the individual or group and the context. I agree that questions are useful management functions and they promote engagement and opportunities for development. Management is a process that at times can be quite straightforward and at other times deeply complex. I do think of questions as" guideposts in a very complex process". While we keep learning about behavior, brain science and performance we must remember to recognize the art. The core of great management remains in a refinement of the art. A lot of that refinement is in the development of our Self, who we are and who we desire to become more of. This defines the difference between great managers and all others. No doubt in my m
    ind that trust is a crucial part of the equation. It might be more at: am I trustable and what evidence do I demonstrate toward that? I appreciate questions like the one discussed here and believe they can and do produce insights that lead to achieving objectives, hopefully one of those of becoming a great manager and great human being.
    • John Van Slyke Jr.
    • President, Morgan Hall Co.
    These days, the issue is simple:

    "Is what I (we) are considering in the best interests of the United States (or whatever country)?"

    You heard it here first.

    • Peggy Degnan
    The universal question for customers is appropriate and in many cases tells an organization quite a bit about the perception on the street. Our organization even asks that exact question in our employee engagement surveys as well as many on 'trust' within the management team and senior leadership team.

    My thought, if you really have to ask about trust in your organization, you don't have it!

    It should be apparent in your employees behaviors.
    • Ruedi G
    • consultant, NLCI
    With apologies to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, we know the answer: 42. Now we are looking for a question to the ultimate answer... In other words, with so many potential leveraging points available to managers, I can't help thinking that there's something quixotic about the search for one ultimate question.
    • Anonymous
    T.O.T.A.L Management gets my vote, wheter org or individual...

    Trust: Inspire/Offer it.
    Ownership: Give/Take it.
    Transparency: As the norm, not the exception
    Altruism: Being a responsible tenant of the planet
    Living: Recognizing that work comes in the way of life
    • Ravi Ramakrishnan
    • Consultant, AT&T
    It depends on the operating environment.

    Let us focus on the current environment in various regions of the world.

    In Europe and US and suh developed nations, where there is an unforeseen economic unceretainty, the question would be " 1. How do I survive?"

    In emerging markets such as in the BRIC countries, the question would be " 2. How do I become the market leader?"

    In poor countries such as Sudan, Somalia etc., "3. What opportunities exist for my company to better the lives of the billions, thereby making my company the a household name in those countries?"
    • Maurice ter Bogt
    The question of all questions:
    Which questions should YOU and I address in OUR conversation today?
    • Dennis Hopwood
    • Director of Human Resources, Whitman College
    Martin Luther King nailed it...

    "Life's most persistent and urgent question is, 'What are you doing for others?"
    • Yadeed Lobo
    Trust is earned over an aeon but can be lost in a moment.
    An organisation as a political entity as embodied in Child's seminal work on strategic choice in Sociology is limited in its prospects for creating a long term atmosphere of trust. Dominant groups which drive decision making under the fa?ade of leadership can erode this trust very quickly. In the short term however, monetary and share options as incentives can lead to such an atmosphere. Major change which drives adrenaline to contribute to something can also create this short term atmosphere of trust but limited to the senior team.

    Maybe business could learn from team sports on the other hand which are built on trust. As an example team sports necessitates the coach confronting the players when they do not perform in order to create a successful team. In today's business world confrontation only comes to the fore when it requires slashing staff costs. The word "I" is quite dominant in 21st century organisations.
    To engender trust requires two things similar to what Professor Heskett proposes as determinants. Safety : children always say "mum" first because they know the eternal bond of love and trust exists. This leads to the second determinant: Taking risks, the ability to make a mistake and take the learnings from it. Like IBM's oft quoted example of Thomas J Watson at IBM
    "Recently, I was asked if I was going to fire an employee who made a mistake that cost the company $600,000. No, I replied, I just spent $600,000 training him. Why would I want somebody to hire his experience?"
    If however the employee causes a financial crisis, then possibly too much trust has led to overconfidence or the seed of greed has set in. The moment when trust is lost forever. Possibly nepotism and poor values has led to this.

    To observe trust I guess one could use Sumantra Ghoshal's "Smell of the Place" video on youtube as a guide. The context is evident when you first enter an organisation or buy a product from them. It reeks of getting things done. Rather than putting an obstacle in everything you do.
    So my question would be " Is your organisation a place where balanced risks can be taken without causing too much career retardation?"
    • Narasimhan Gopalan
    • Vice President, Oracle FSS
    'Are we Valuable' This is my choice for the Ultimate Question.

    In every relationship, be it business or personal, there is give and take. In business, it is believed that businesses give less and take more. On the other side, when someone gives more and takes less it is considered charity. What is given and taken is not just a factor of monetary or material aspect but it is a complex interplay of material, emotional and intellectual factors besides values and belief systems.

    Of course, I believe that the most essential component of any relationship is Trust. When there is high level of trust, it lays the foundation for the relationship; and adding relevance to a mutually trustworthy relationship leads to success. Trust is a combination of material, emotional and intellectual aspects of the relationship and needs strong faith in the principle which is the biggest challenge for long term survival and success.

    Do we trust anyone all the time? How do we know when and when not to trust or what and what not to trust? Is there an unconditional or complete trust? Can we measure trust? And, monitor how it is changing from time to time.

    In my view, NPV would include the element of trust as one of the key ingredients while the effectiveness of the promoter's recommendation depends on the trust with and relevance to the person to whom the recommendation is being given.

    Thanks to Prof Heskett for raising this question in the current troubled times of global financial and political crises. Answer to the Ultimate Question is fundamental to the future success of every enterprise and the business world need to place trust building high on the agenda.
    • Harry Abrikian
    • Senior Lecturer, Mona School of Business
    I have two - authenticity (i.e. what you see is what you get) and a having a passion for something bigger than yourself(i.e. money is not a first level motivator). If you are not genuine nor passionate you may be a manager, but not a leader.
    • Gopal Padinjaruveetil
    • Capgemini
    It is a very interesting question..

    The word "Ultimate" has a definite meaning .. the dictionary meaning is "Decisive; conclusive: representing a limit beyond which further progress, as in investigation or analysis, is impossible".

    There should be nothing beyond that question in management ..

    Here is an example : the Ultimate question of life (has been asked many centuries ago) "Who am I?"

    which leads self enquiry - Am I this body? Am I the Mind inside the body? or Am I the intellect in the mind?.. That is a perfect example of an ultimate question.. and the sages say a clear understaning of this question will set you free!

    So what could be a Ultimate question in management at that level ( beyond which there can be no question).

    The question should be a WHY ( as many has responded)..

    The question I would ask is


    It is a question of Value.. and I hope the answer will lead to the realization (to the management and its stakeholders) of the purpose for which the organization exists.