Get to the “Why”

Dr. John Townsend

April 26, 2017


Great leaders use the skill of digging into the true causes of why challenges happen, and don’t stop with “try harder” solutions, which simply don’t work most of the time.

I was working with the executive staff of a several hundred million dollar company, and asked the sales manager how things were going. He said, “My best salesperson Robert is not hitting his numbers and it’s impacting the whole team.” I said, “That’s tough, what did you say to Robert about this?” He said, “I told him there are a lot of people who want this job, so pay attention.”

I asked him, “Did you ask him why he’s not hitting quota?” “No”, he said, “He’s a professional, he just needed some motivation.” “Not all the time”, I said. “There is any number of causes for performance problems: lack of clarity, being overwhelmed, lack of resourcing and even being discouraged, for starters. You need to find the “why” before you tell him he needs to work harder.”

A month later, the sales manager told me, “I explored with Robert what was going on and I found out that I was the problem. I had given him too much territory and didn’t prioritize them for him. Once it was solved, his numbers went back up.”

Leaders are under lots of pressure, and sometimes don’t feel they have the time to dig into the “why” of things with their people. But my experience in consulting with organizations is that you actually don’t have time not to dig.

That is, a tactical answer to a strategic problem, or a pat answer to a complex cultural issue will always result in more time, energy and resource wasted until the problem is truly solved. Think about all the time you wasted with a respiratory infection not wanting to go the doctor for antibiotics, and you get the picture.

Here are some helpful tips for being a great leader with a great “Why”:

  • Save “work harder” as the last solution. Sometimes it truly is the solution. But it’s easy to default to it. Just keep it in your pocket.
  • Ask your directs what they think is causing the problem before you say what you think. Avoid the leadership disease of coming up with the answer first and then having everyone else shut down because they don’t want to push back.
  • Use “Why” several times. This technique has been very powerful for me in solving complex problems with companies. For example:
    • Why are we losing market share?
      • Because we aren’t attracting the market.
    • OK, why is that?
      • Because our approach is outdated.
    • I understand, why do you think that is?
      • Because we’ve been scrambling and haven’t gotten feedback on how our market is changing.
    • Makes sense, why is that?

You will get to the bottom much quicker for the true solution.

“Why” takes patience and requires some restraint. But you stand a much greater change of resolving knotty problems in your organization once and for all.

Best to your leadership.

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