10 core questions CEOs should be able to answer and why

I sit quietly, surrounded by a select group of company managers, all identified as high-potential leaders within this organization. I am their leadership trainer. Anticipation is in the air.

The CEO enters the room. He is here to respond to questions posed by my group, as requested by the HR director, who is also here. They are honored to have an opportunity to interact with him and have eagerly prepared their questions.

Predictably, the CEO starts by stating the company’s financials are good. I feel a slight twinge of disappointment as I take in the attentive gazes of my leadership trainees, most of whom are leaning forward in their seats. The CEO talks about how things are hard due to the fierce competition, but believes in the strategy of acquiring other smaller companies. He ends with a list of things he wants to have happen in the coming year. 

“Does anyone have any questions for me?” he asks.

“What is your vision for the future?” someone asks. He hesitates.

“Well, I don’t have a crystal ball, so I can’t predict the future, but I can talk to you about next year if you want…”

I glance around the room. The feeling of eager anticipation that was present moments earlier has fizzled slightly. I begin to regret our having asked him to address this group of high potentials. Another employee stands.

“As managers, we’re a bit concerned by the recent increase in employees who are leaving or have left already. What are your feelings about this and what actions are being considered?”

“Well,” he says, “the situation here is not really worse than those of our competitors. But I agree that we certainly need to do a better job of employee retention. I count on you to help us make that happen.”

My shoulders slump as I see the questioning looks the managers are giving each other. As more questions are addressed by the CEO, the mood in the room flattens.

Toward the end, a daring manager asks, “Sir, what are you proud of?” Good question, I think. But the CEO looks slightly uncomfortable.

“I’m not the type of person to answer a question like that,” he says. “I prefer to focus on what’s not working well and address those problems…”

The message I just heard from the person in charge of this entire organization is that “If you’re really good at your job and at being a leader, I won’t really notice,” but “If you make a mistake, our paths are going to cross.” And “I have no idea where our company is going, but make sure you react well to whatever direction it heads.” Worse yet, “Nothing you do is worth being proud of. I just want you to focus on not making any mistakes.” 

This was a mistake. Why, I wondered, did we invite him without providing him better preparation and coaching! I make a mental note to ensure that the HR director who’s here with us prepares him appropriately next time. Goodness, get him coached! Quick!

CEOs need to prepare for such events. Answering core questions helps define the culture, the soul of the company and greatly impact the engagement of its managers. Furthermore, it inspires them to make better tactical decisions.

Here is a list of questions that a CEO or senior managers should spend time on and be prepared to answer. (Please feel free to add your own questions to the list.)

  1. What is the true purpose and mission of this company?

  2. What is the history, the soul, the culture, and how does it align with our aspirations?

  3. What are we proud of, and what do we want to be proud of in the future?

  4. What should be my legacy as the leader of this group? 

  5. What impact do I need to make on our culture today?

  6. How do I help younger managers prepare for the future in this company?

  7. Beyond conquering market share, what new tracks are we trying to create?

  8. What do I love about my job? What do I find exciting about our future?

  9. What would make me fulfilled in this role and job?

  10. What is our opportunity today as a group?

Focusing on the soul of one’s company and its purpose may be one of the most powerful levers of employee engagement. Even if you do not occupy a high role, such as a manager, I encourage you to spend time pondering on these existential questions. They are part of your responsibility.

Welcome to the Club.

Hervé Da Costa

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 ------ Hervé Da Costa is the author of "What Color Is Your Sky?"