Leaders are fundamentally aggregators of knowledge. We don’t get to be small-business owners by knowing everything; we do it by working with good people and using what our team collectively knows. In fact, if you think you know everything—even about your own company—then you’re likely a lousy leader.
So how do you do it? How do you extract the valuable knowledge your staff holds? Asking questions helps. And don’t forget to cast your net wide when you’re talking to your staff. Every member may have something to contribute—from the warehouse worker to the receptionist to the sales reps. Here’s what you should consider asking.
1. What are your personal goals and vision?
Working for your company can be about so much more than just the income. When you can find a way to connect what’s important to your employees to the goals of your company, you may be setting yourself up to lead a team of motivated, high energy folks. Work to align your business goals with the goals of your employees, and you may both win.
Follow-up Question: How can working here make that a reality? Getting your employees’ take on how you can dovetail their goals with yours may help bring clarity and focus to your efforts.
2. How can I serve you better?
Never, ever forget that part of your role as a leader should be to work in service to your colleagues and employees. Asking this question can demonstrate your dedication, and it can also help give you specific direction in making worthwhile changes.
Follow-up Question: What impact will it have? Understanding how your employees envision your assistance can help you refine your strategies.
3. What is the biggest roadblock keeping you from achieving your personal goals?
Sometimes we can see the problem, even if we can’t yet envision the solution. Uncovering what's preventing your staff from achieving their goals may help you find the answer. This question can help you help your staff.
Follow-up Question: What is the impact of removing this roadblock? Help your employees begin to envision their ideal, most efficient selves by giving them a chance to describe what success looks like.
4. Who are the people at the company you admire the most?
This question may set you on the path to uncovering the social network in your business. Too often we may think of the company in terms of its organizational chart, rather than in terms of the critical relationships that promote or impede progress toward a goal. Identify the drivers, the do-ers and the rock stars in your company by finding out who helps other employees to succeed.
Follow-up Question: Why? Sometimes you may have to read between the lines to understand why certain staff members are admired, but identifying those critical employees who drive your success and supporting the behaviors that make your company a better place to work may help you nurture those desirable traits.
5. What is wrong, broken or just not working right with the company?
Getting a variety of perspectives on what’s wrong in your business can help illuminate both the problems and the solutions. Maybe you have great people working in the wrong positions, or there’s some hindrance to maximum efficiency. Suss out what’s not working.
Follow-up question: How would you fix it? You never know where the best solutions will come from. Ask the folks on the front lines.
6. How can we serve our customers better?
Leaders tend to be tasked with working on the big picture, but that mean sometimes you can miss the little stuff—the little stuff that may be absolutely critical for customer satisfaction. Different perspectives on how you can send every customer out the door fully satisfied may be enormously enlightening.
Follow-up question: How can we have the biggest customer impact economically? Don’t underestimate the insight of your staff. You may be missing all sorts of little details that can end up simultaneously cutting costs and benefitting your clients.
As a small-business owner, you can’t guarantee your employees that you can remedy every complaint. But if you don’t ask the questions, if you don’t know what’s wrong, then you can't address problems. Consider asking these questions of your employees, and do so regularly. Having these conversations with your staff can give them a safe way to vent, and it can also help improve employee retention. You may identify problems you weren’t even aware of and create opportunities for making your company run even better.
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A version of this article was originally published on February 10, 2016.