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Our biggest screw-ups happen not because we follow the wrong advice, but because we fail to ask the right questions. Andrew Sobel identifies five questions that 2011’s most notorious headline-makers should have asked—and five more this year’s contenders should keep in mind.

By all accounts 2011 was a doozy of a year. Business leaders and celebrities alike bet the proverbial farm and lost it, in spectacular fashion. Politicians displayed similar poor judgment (not to mention body parts best left covered) to a disgusted electorate. Throngs of ordinary citizens came together to make a defiant stand, yet failed to mention what their actual solution was. It seems clear that many confused Americans could use a good instruction manual to help them make better decisions…right?

Wrong, says Andrew Sobel. It’s not that they failed to get the right answers—it’s that they failed to ask the right questions.

“Most human beings harbor a huge misconception,” says Sobel, co-author (with Jerold Panas) of Power Questions: Build Relationships, Win New Business, and Influence Others. “It goes like this: If we could just get some straight answers, we’d know the right decisions to make. The real truth is different: If we just asked the right questions, we’d understand what the real issues are, and the answers would come quite easily. We’d then know what to do—and what NOT to do.”

Good questions cut to the heart of the issue, explains Sobel. They help us connect and engage with others in meaningful ways. They reframe the problems we’re facing. And perhaps most important, they show us the potential consequences of our actions. (They’re the most basic form of looking before you leap).

“Questions are almost always more powerful and provocative than statements or direct advice—which most people don’t take anyway,” he says. “That’s because they help us arrive at our own answers. We’re more likely to embrace the answers we arrive at on our own than those someone else dictates to us. 

While Sobel ostensibly wrote his book to help business leaders ask the kinds of questions that win clients and forge strong relationships, he says its central truth pertains to everyone.

“The larger-than-life missteps that play out in the media illustrate what happens when we don’t humbly and thoughtfully ask ourselves the right questions,” he says. “We can all learn from the mistakes of others.”

Through that lens, Sobel looks back at the year behind us, and forward to the year ahead, addressing five questions that should have been asked in 2011.

Question 1: If my actions become public, how will this affect the most important people and constituencies in my life?

Also called the “light-of-day test,” this question should have been asked by—well, we’re spoiled for choices on this one! Sobel lists several: Mark Hurd, CEO of HP, who took the comely Jodie Fisher out for tête-à-tête dinners and was then ousted by his board for allegedly lying on his expense reports. “Governator” Arnold Schwarzenegger, who fathered a child with his maid in his own house. IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn, married, who now admits to having sex with a chambermaid in his NY hotel. Congressman Anthony Weiner, sent semi-nude photos of himself to young women via Twitter.

“Who else comes to mind?” wonders Sobel. “Senator John Ensign? Representative Christopher Lee? Ex-candidate Herman Cain? The list seems endless. When we fail to take the light-of-day test, careers are ruined, marriages are ruined, images are ruined.”

Question 2: Why was I elected?

This is the question former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich should have asked himself the day he took office. Now heading to jail for 14 years for extortion and other crimes, Blagojevich apparently had very little interest in actually fulfilling his duties as governor.

“Admittedly, Blagojevich represents politics at its worst,” notes Sobel. “But even the best candidates spend much of their terms trying to get reelected, and they end up indulging in all the distractions and compromises that reelection requires. So come to think of it, quite a few politicians should ask themselves this question on a regular basis. Daily.”

Question 3: What is our mission and message, and how can we communicate it to have impact?

Occupy Wall Street became a media phenomenon in 2011—a global brand, really. If the protesters had truly pondered this question, they would have had at least a chance to turn the encampment on Wall Street into an effective political movement like the Tea Party. But they didn’t, and without a coherent mission and message it died like a summer flower in a biting autumn frost.

“If grassroots movements don’t answer this question, they will never become more than a passing fad,” says Sobel. “It’s a shame, because in a nation run by ‘we the people,’ the voice of ordinary men and women deserves to be heard. Too bad that in this case that voice came across as confused and inconsistent, and eventually provoked derision instead of the support it probably should have engendered.”

Question 4: If this bet is wrong, can we survive the fallout?

This is the question that MF Global CEO and former New Jersey Governor, Jon Corzine, should have asked himself before he overrode his own company’s trading policies and bet billions that the bonds of beleaguered countries like Greece and Italy were “undervalued” by the market! Instead, he literally “bet the bank”—and lost the bet. When $1.2 billion then mysteriously disappeared from customer accounts—according to some, taken out to cover the losses—Corzine told a congressional hearing “I simply do not know where the money is.”

“Risk taking is part of business—and life,” says Sobel. “But if the cost of a failed bet is catastrophe, maybe you should ask a few more questions about the opportunity.”

Question 5: How did Robert Downey Jr. get sober and put his life back on track?

This extraordinary actor has been lauded for commercially successful roles in Iron Man, Tropic Thunder, Sherlock Holmes and other high-grossing films. But a decade ago he was the poster child for unrepentant, out-of-control addiction and bad behavior. Between 1996 and 2001 he was arrested repeatedly, served time in jail, and pretty much destroyed his career and his relationships. Still, he managed an amazing turnaround that is, sadly, the exception in Hollywood, not the rule. How did he do it?

“Many celebrities and artists needed to ask this question in earnest in 2011—perhaps everyone’s favorite ‘winner,’ Charlie Sheen, most of all,” says Sobel. “In the answer, they might have found not just hope but a road-tested strategy for their own recovery, which in Downey’s case included taking responsibility for his actions and complete sobriety. Some, such as Amy Winehouse who succumbed to alcohol poisoning, die before they get the chance. Others slowly spiral downward for years.

“Many people, celebrities and ordinary folks alike, believe they are invincible,” he adds. “They could all benefit from the self-awareness to realize they’re on the downhill slide…and the humility to ask what they might do to turn it around and get real help.”

Sobel also suggests five questions that should be asked in 2012.

Question 1: Whom do we serve?

This question should be asked by CEOs of financial institutions around the world. It’s essential because the crux of the banking system’s meltdown was the obsessive focus on shareholders as the most important constituency, with high-performing, risk-taking employees a close second—at the expense of depositors and clients. The quest for higher and higher shareholder returns—with Goldman Sachs and successful hedge funds as a benchmark—drove banks to take ever-greater risks during the run-up to the derivatives-fueled collapse of 2008 to 2009.

Depositors suffered. Traditional corporate clients suffered. The result, of course, was an unsustainable, out-of-balance business model.

“Now, financial institutions must return to a more traditional balance with an equal emphasis on serving shareholders, clients, employees, and depositors,” says Sobel.

Question 2: What compelling value can I wrap around my products or services to convince customers to buy from me rather than the cheapest online source?

Small businesses everywhere need to think long and hard on this point. Almost any product can now be purchased online, and most services can be competitively bid online. Some businesses will always be purely local, but distant providers can now fulfill many needs formerly supplied by local businesses. Just look at the travel agency industry, which was obliterated by online travel services.

“The point is this,” says Sobel. “Whether you are a graphic designer or a lawyer, you must learn to build long-term relationships with customers and provide them with value that moves the purchase decision away from just price—otherwise you’ll be dropped by the click of a mouse and you’ll go the way of travel agencies and bricks-and-mortar bookstores. Online marketing and sales, of course, also offers these same businesses an opportunity and not just a threat.”

Question 3: How can I personally role model and communicate strategy and values to ensure our success?

This question can help the leaders of large corporations cut through the distractions they face and stay focused on what matters most. External constituencies such as regulatory agencies and investors take up huge amounts of senior management time. There is more information to digest and more decisions to make than ever before in history. Even the media has become a distraction. And the perks of top management—richer than ever—can themselves derail even the most level-headed manager.

Despite the distractions, the great CEOs never waiver from the task of building an enduring organization with a unique DNA for success, says Sobel.

“They do this by relentlessly asking themselves and others who work for them a few basic questions,” he explains. “For example: What is our strategy? What makes our company special to work for? Why do our customers buy from us and prefer us to our competitors? What are our most important values? Hands-on CEOs like Alan Mulally of Ford and the outgoing CEO of IBM, Sam Palmisano, have made the answer to this question their blueprint for action.”

Question 4: What do I stand for?

Who is most in need of this question? President Obama, Andrew Sobel is looking at you.

“In the New Testament Gospel of Matthew, there is an extraordinary scene where Jesus gathers his disciples in the region of Caesarea Philippi,” says Sobel. “He is about to go into Jerusalem, where he knows he will be killed. He asks his disciples, ‘Who do the crowds say I am?’ After they give several uninspiring answers, he turns to Simon Peter, possibly his closest follower, and bluntly asks, ‘But who do you say I am?’

“Jesus wants to know if his disciples truly understand who he is and what he stands for, so that they will carry on after his death,” Sobel continues. “President Obama’s problem is that his followers cannot answer that question anymore. They don’t really know who he is, nor do they know if he knows. And until they do, his reelection is in doubt.”

Question 5: If I knew I had only three years to live, how would I spend my time and what would I want to accomplish?

This is the question we all need to ask ourselves. Sobel points out that the traditional version—“What would you do if you had only a month or six months to live?”—is not very inspiring or useful, because in such a short period of time you basically would say goodbye and wrap up your life. But three years is enough time to pursue some of the things you’ve always wanted to do: to accomplish some personal and professional goals, to build much better relationships with the key people in your life. You couldn’t spend three years just saying goodbye!

“Three years is basically the same as the rest of your life,” explains Sobel. “It’s a trick question in the sense that what we’re really asking is ‘How do you want to spend your life? What is truly important to you?’ But by asking the question this way—using a three-year horizon—you powerfully focus the mind in a way that short time frames like one month or undefined ones like ‘the rest of your life’ do not.”

“When we fail to stop and ask ourselves the big questions from time to time, we continue to march blindly forward on autopilot,” says Sobel. “Or we get distracted by the noise around us and lose sight of our goals. Or maybe we even let our baser drives like greed and self-absorption override our moral bearings and our common sense.

“Questions are gut-check devices that simultaneously give us some humility and provide us with a clear-headed sense of where we want to go—and don’t want to go—in our lives and our careers. They keep us from ending up on the front page.”

Andrew Sobel is the most widely published author in the world on client loyalty and the capabilities required to build trusted business relationships. His first book, the bestselling Clients for Life, defined the genre of business literature about client loyalty. His other books include Making Rain, and the award-winning All for One: 10 Strategies for Building Trusted Client Partnerships. He can be reached at andrewsobel.com. Jerry Panas is executive partner of Jerold Panas, Linzy & Partners, one of the world’s most highly regarded firms in the field of fundraising services and financial resource development. He can be reached at jeroldpanas.com.

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