How Do Great Leaders Get Good Information?

by Bill Murphy Jr.
Originally Published: 

If he’s the titular character in Shakespeare’s Henry V, he disguises himself as a commoner, walks through the camp, and engages his soldiers in conversation without letting them know his real identity. Are they truly willing to follow him once more into the breach? Or do they feel they’re about to enter the winter of their discontent? (Author’s note: With that, I may have exhausted my reservoir of Shakespearean references.) Either way, at least he’ll get the straight scoop.

That’s a fairly ambitious, even literary way of getting good intelligence as a leader. Come to think of it, it’s also the basic premise behind the CBS television show Undercover Boss. Regardless, it’s a problem. If you’re the coppo di tutti capi, how else do you ensure that the rest of the people in your organization will give you good gouge?

Here are five solid strategies designed to do just that.

1. Get it yourself.

This is the Henry V method and, believe it or not, it works. I once talked with a sergeant major in Iraq who told me he made a habit of going to the base dining facility alone wearing his workout uniform (“PT gear,” if you’re fluent in milspeak), or even swapping the Velcro patch with his rank for a lower-ranking sergeant’s stripes. Then he’d sit quietly and eavesdrop on the other soldiers around him.

Obviously there are big drawbacks to this method. It won’t work well if your organization is small enough that you know all of the people on your team personally. But the do-it-yourself method can be effective.

2. Find some emissaries

Here’s another example from the military world. Legendary Marine General James Mattis would pick lower-ranking officers he especially trusted and send them out as “eyes officers” to go through the ranks and report back to him those problems and concerns his officers might be too tentative to report up the formal chain of command. (This is from an article in Slate that popped up in my news feed recently, although it’s actually more than four years old.)

There is a potential problem, however, if leaders become convinced that even their emissaries are providing inaccurate information. During the ultimately fruitless search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the Bush administration enlisted a CIA veteran named David Kay to be one of their sets of eyes on the ground. At one point, Vice President Cheney’s chief of staff sent him a set of specific coordinates where that they wanted him to go—unfortunately for micromanaging efficiency, the location was in Lebanon, not Iraq. (Author’s note: This story comes from Bob Woodward’s book, State of Denial, which I worked on as a research assistant. Also, this now marks my record for author’s notes in a single piece.)

3. Formalized Reviews

At Amazon, every meeting begins with a six-page memo, called a narrative. The idea is that while people have become past masters at b.s.’ing their way through PowerPoint presentations, it’s a lot harder to fake your way through a 2,000 or 3,000-word memorandum.

Maybe you’re not into all that reading; maybe your people aren’t into all that writing. However, formalizing the process of providing information throughout an organization can make it more likely that you’ll actually get the intelligence you need in a timely manner.

4. Ask targeted, open-ended questions

There’s a time and a place for yes-or-no inquiries. That said, if you’re simply going to engage people in conversation and you want them to tell you what they’re thinking or what’s going on, you need to create conditions that let them feel comfortable doing so.

A simple question in passing—How’s everything?—usually elicits a simple response, regardless of how well things are actually going. When your boss sees you in the hallway and asks if you’re doing well, you’re unlikely to stop him or her and rattle off a litany of problems. However, if your boss instead asks you, What’s the one thing I could do for you today to make it easier for you to do your job well? you’re more likely to give a thoughtful, targeted response.

5. Ask focused, repeated questions

Following up on the question strategy, I interviewed an entrepreneur who found that as his company grew, he had less time to get the details he needed from the people who worked for him. His solution to come up with three staggered questions, each of which gave the person he was talking with more permission to unload the information—positive and negative—that he needed to hear.

The pattern is pretty simple: “How are things going?” would usually lead to a quick, “Fine.” He’d follow with another question: “Are there any problems I should know about?” which often might lead to a subtle acknowledgment that maybe there was something below the surface: “No…not really.”

“Great,” he’d reply. “But if there were a problem, what would it be?” From there, the floodgates would open, and the information would flow freely.

photo: flickr/ajleon

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