What Question Should Family Leaders Be Asking Their Followers?

JoAnne Norton
Jo Anne Norton

As the leader of a family business, how can you learn what the major concerns of your followers are? What could you ask that would help you learn what your family owners really want the future to look like? What kind of question could you ask that would elicit responses that are open, honest, non-threatening and even creative?

David Cooperrider developed a systematic way of discovery he calls Appreciative Inquiry. Instead of using the conventional method of working with organizations, which is to ask diagnostic questions, such as “What’s wrong with this business?” Cooperrider focuses on what is working well.

The term Appreciative Inquiry comes from the word appreciate meaning valuing, prizing, or honoring, and the word inquire meaning discovery, search, or systematic exploration. Cooperrider also ascertains that the people inside the organization are the ones who really understand what needs to happen for it to be at its very best. In order to learn that, he simply asks: “If you had three wishes for the organization, what would they be?” This question is useful in all organizations, but I have found it to be particularly powerful in family businesses.

Last month I made a presentation at the Inland Press Association’s Family Owners & Next Generation Leadership Conference in Chicago about different leadership models for family businesses. The Inland Press Association is comprised of approximately 1200 newspapers that reach nearly 20 million U.S. homes. Many of those newspapers have been family owned and operated for several generations, and at least one is in its 6th generation of leadership. When these newspaper owners are gathered in one room there is an incredible energy created by their passion for what they do and a synergy that is as exciting as it is supportive.

From Appreciative Inquiry I asked the nearly forty family owners present: “If you had three wishes for your family business leaders—family as well as non-family—what would they be?” Their answers were most revealing.

This group had some philosophical wishes for their leaders because most of them see journalism as a true calling. Media Ethics authority, Kenneth Harwood writes: “Journalism, as a calling, asks for a moral dimension, professional skills, and professional aims. Similar to the biblical wedding feast, many are called, but few are chosen.”  The members of the Inland Press Association feel the awesome responsibility of being part of the American press, or “the watchdog of democracy.” In this group, where journalists are held to extremely high standards, those who lead journalists must be held to even higher standards. So it is not surprising that they wished their leaders would continue to make “journalistic endeavors” explaining, “Public trust can make a significant difference in our communities if we excel.”

The group also specifically wished their leaders would be “servant-leaders” in the style of Robert K. Greenleaf, who believed leaders should serve first and then lead. They also wished for their leaders to develop strong future servant-leaders, for their leaders to have confidence in the transition from one generation to the next, and to embrace change.

The family owners said they wished their leaders would establish a clear vision for the direction of the company. The wish most often made was that their leaders would communicate more. This group wanted to hear more from their leaders as well as for their leaders to hear more from them. They wanted to be listened to, and most importantly, to be heard.

One respected and revered leader of a major newspaper family, who was attending this conference with three generations of his family present, acknowledged that he had heard how many times better communication was wished for. He promised his family members in front of the entire group that he would be more forthcoming about what was on his mind as well as his plans for the future.

Once again I witnessed the power of the simple innocuous question: “If you had three wishes, what would they be?” Whether you are a family leader or a non-family leader, whether you are in the newspaper industry or the nutrition business, it might be time to ask that question and then to really listen.

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