May 14, 2007
Sorry, Harley Dude: Ask
Your Employees These Four Questions
Richard Teerlink, erstwhile CEO of Harley Davidson, believes you only
need to ask four questions to engage the minds of your employees and get
them thinking about how to make the company succeed.
Interesting idea. But what boring questions! Check these out:
How should we
behave? (Dude, you run the world’s biggest motorcycle gang. What do
you think you’re supposed to do? Imitate the Little Sisters of the
(Steak, sports, D.F. Krause, charcoal grills . . . )
Who do we serve?
(The IRS, silly.)
How do we measure
success? (See the numbers in your bank account? Are they big? Good.
Are they red? Uh oh . . . )
With questions like these, it’s no wonder Harley Davidson still has
competitors. I can accept the idea that you need four questions to
engage your employees, but Teerlink does not have the right questions. I
questions are more relevant to the real business world. They might
actually be asked in any given office on any given day. They next time
your employees need to become engaged and energized to achieve your
vision, ask them these:
1. What the hell is
Granted, this question is uberrelevant in the sense that it could
apply to almost anything anyone ever does or says in business. That’s
why you can’t abuse it. Theoretically, you could get to the point where
“What the hell is that?” is all you ever need to say at all. But control
yourself. This question is best applied to everyday occurrences, like
inane employee statements.
Let’s say an employee responds to a challenge by saying, “By taking a
proactive approach and by complementing each other’s strengths, we can
turn this into a win-win.” What the hell is that? If you are an
experienced CEO, you recognize it to mean, “I have no idea what you want
me to do, and I wish you were asking someone else, but since you’re
asking me, I’m going to say some positive-sounding B.S. until I can find
someone who can actually do this.”
Question 1 might also apply when people are late, when people say
something “fell through the cracks” or when someone makes a very odd
lunch choice. It is such a powerful question, you really need to keep it
in your holster the majority of the time.
2. Whose idea was this?
Remember when you decided to “realign”? Remember when you were going to
do guerilla marketing? Remember the strategic planning session where you
decided to create “bottom-up, empowered, team-driven, innovation-focused
Nice going. The only thing that might make this question unnecessary is
the fact that, three weeks after some hare-brained scheme was launched,
it will simply stop of its own volition and no one will remember you
were ever doing it in the first place. But what sometimes happens is
that one person – probably the person who talked you into the daylong
off-site as an excuse for wearing jeans to work that day – feels the
need to keep the new strategic initiative going as a justification for
the quasi-day off.
This person is still trying to get everyone to do empowered, virtual,
bottom-up stuff when everyone else has long since returned to doing
their normal jobs. That’s when you need to step in. Now, keep in mind,
asking “Whose idea was this?” is not designed to elicit a constructive
answer. Nor will it. No one is going to put a hand up and say, “It was
mine!” What they might do is point to the person who had the idea, and
if that happens, all you have to do is say, “Well, I don’t really
remember, and it doesn’t really matter, but I think we all have work to
3. Would your family
object if you had to work late tonight? The time to ask this one is about 11:15 a.m. Its actually meaning is:
“Get it in gear if you want to go home at five o’clock.” The reason
11:15 is so crucial is that it gets the message delivered before the
person heads off for lunch. It better! If they’ve already gone to lunch
at 11:15, they are definitely staying late.
Use this one when you either really need something done that day, or you
just think someone is being a slacker and you’re tired of it. Follow up
around 2 p.m. and ask what the family would be having for dinner that
night in the event you’d be able to be there. The employee’s project
will be done by 4:15, guaranteed.
4. Do you think I
should just do this myself?
This scares the bejeezus out of employees because a) they know darn well
you can’t do whatever it is; and b) if you think you can, they’re toast.
It’s almost as good as offering to help them with something, except
that’s risky because they might take you up on it, and then
you’re stuck helping them all day.
Harley Guy’s questions are good for CEO books and Economic Club
speeches. My questions work for the real business world, and are a lot
more entertaining for the CEO asking them.
Why the hell are you still reading this?
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