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5 Questions Every Employee Needs Their Leader to Answer

By Susan Hall

5 Questions Every Employee Needs Their Leader to Answer

Companies are looking to grow but at the same time companies are also leaner, so they often need to do more with fewer employees. As a result, companies need high levels of talented people that stay and do their best.

Leadership is complex. Susan and Bob discuss and break down the five questions and concerns that every employee needs to be addressed, and offer five strategies leadership can use to address these questions.

At Strategic Enhancement Group we are always looking for new ways to share our experience. We are a group of professionals who are passionate about our work: helping our clients to enhance what they already do well to attain greater results. Let us know what you think!

Susan Hall: 00:01  Well hi everyone and welcome to the latest episode of Strategic Insights brought to you by Strategic Enhancement Group. I'm Susan Hall, Vice President of Business Development and Performance Improvement at Strategic Enhancement. Today's topic is the five questions that every employee needs their leader to answer. And joining me today is Bob Parks who is Managing Partner of SEG.

Bob welcome. Good to have you here today.

Bob Parks: 00:27  Thank you, Susan. I'm excited to be here.

Susan Hall: 00:31  Well, I know Bob personally and Bob has over 50 years of experience in sales leadership and organizational leadership and has a really comprehensive background. He came up through the ranks as a first line manager and now serves as Managing Partner of SEG and has served on multiple boards both regional and global.

I am very excited to get your perspective here today Bob. As I was thinking about our conversation today and thinking about this whole issue of leadership, which is such a critical topic. Companies are looking to grow and at the same time they're leaner than they've ever been, so they need to do more with fewer employees. As a result, they need a higher level of talent that's willing to stay and contribute their best in the organization. That's kind of ironic because we know from experience that the last two generations of employees really don't stay very long. So, it's very complex in terms of leading people. One of the things that I admire about you is, you are often able to take very complex subjects and make sense of that and simplify it. That doesn't mean it's easy. But, I know that I've heard you talk over the past several years about several practices around leadership that need to address critical questions that all employees have. I'm wondering if you can start by sharing that with us today.

Bob Parks: 02:12  Certainly. The whole subject of leadership, I think it's important for everyone to understand that first of all, leadership is not easy. No matter what you're college professor might have told you, it is essential and it's essential because it's about performance.

There was a recent Gallup poll that said, "Over 55 percent of employees are not engaged in their work." I mean think about that? So if you're listening to this podcast, half of the people that work for you are probably not engaged in the work that you have them doing. Then there was another recent poll by the Society for Human Resource Management that said, "Turnover among executives and managers is at an all-time high." Susan, you referenced that a minute ago. If we think of turnover in terms of employees, but because of leadership issues, many times we find that executives and managers are having to leave as well. It's an important topic and one of the things I think we miss so many times, if we're taking a classic MBA approach to leadership, is this whole idea of employee fulfillment.

I know it's a hard concept to get your hands around, but to the degree which an employee is fulfilled, is a direct correlation to the degree to which that employee is high performing. The interesting statistic is that the most important factor in an employee being fulfilled is the leadership skills of their direct manager. It is all about performance, but there's this middle ground of being fulfilled, and I think so many leaders just miss that whole point.

Susan Hall: 04:12  That doesn't surprise me, Bob, I think back on my career, how many times do employees leave because of their poor management. Even if they work for a great company, contrast that to employees who stay because they have a great manager.

Bob Parks: 04:38  Exactly. A lot of leaders don't want to put that on themselves, there's a lot of pressure, but it truly is the key factor why people leave and that is their direct manager. While it's not easy, it's not impossible. Leadership can be learned, good leadership can be practiced, and the best work I've seen on that has come from a gentleman named Michael Leimbach. He broke down IPART leadership in a very appropriate way by looking at employees. It's really interesting if you're going to look at leadership, look at the people that you have to lead. Michael came up with, through his research, there are five critical questions that every employee asked of their company or of their leadership. If you understand these five questions and you address these five questions on an ongoing basis you have a much higher probability of getting performance, and really, that's one of our objectives.

Susan Hall: 05:53  Very cool. When you talk about these five practices, what are they and is there one that's more important?

Bob Parks: 06:01  I wouldn't be able to say that one is more important than the others. I, like most of us, I have my favorite, but the first of the five is called direction and to define direction, does the leader create a work environment that links to the organization or organization's purpose or their organization's mission? Is your work unit connected to the overall direction and the overall purpose of the larger organization? It's important to keep this mission or vision of the organization in sight, because if you lose it, if your employees aren't sure why they are there, they aren't sure what is the overall purpose of the company, then that opens up a lot of different directions, and you may have departments going in different directions and that's not high performing. It's real important to make sure that everyone is aware and that your department and your people are connected to, what is the mission, what is the purpose of the entire organization?

Susan Hall: 07:15  There are some people, managers that I've spoken with or employees over the years that believe that that's kind of soft. That mission direction strategy, all of those big Harvard Business Review words are just really nice words that go up on a wall or show up in a company statement. What do you say to that?

Bob Parks: 07:40  Well, I guess the first thing I'd have to say is I went to the University of Chicago, so I'd never use a Harvard reference. But, you're right. I have heard that many times and unfortunately the only time people come to understand the importance of direction is when they don't have it. When their organization, their work unit is not engaged, not aligned with the entire company and they find that there are people working at cross-purposes, their performance is not what it needs to be. Oftentimes, too late, they find out that this alignment of the organization is really, really critical because if your people don't know, they'll make it up.

Susan Hall: 08:30  Absolutely, and then you can have everyone going off into lots of different directions. So direction is critical. What comes next?

Bob Parks: 08:41  Well, I'd say following right on, making sure that people understand the mission and purpose of the organization is the goals that you have set with them. The way I define goals is, does the leader define achievable work objectives? I emphasize the word achievable and are they well defined. Many times, our employees complain to us because they're not sure, believe it or not, what exactly they're supposed to do. Where exactly are they supposed to put their energy? While we think, everybody kind of yawns when they hear the word goals, because it's hugely overused. Goals aren't as easy as you think. A really good goal, something that an employee can take and then apply their skill and talent to, takes a little thought.

First of all it has to be realistic. It has to be understandable. It definitely has to be measurable. If the employee and you can't measure the progress or lack of progress, then you don't really have a goal. The other thing I think people really miss around goals is that they have to be behavioral. I know that sounds like we're getting a little too much into the world of psychology, but a good goal has to be something that is behavioral in nature. For example, do better is not a goal. So many times, you get these vague kind of goals. People have to understand, "What is it exactly you want me to do?", and do is obviously the behavioral.

Susan Hall: 10:34  And your concept of do better might be different than my concept of do better. You could definitely see where there might be some tensions down the road. You know what Bob, one of the things that you've challenged me with, in terms of my goals over the years that I've worked with Strategic Enhancement Group, is to have goals that are compelling too. It's not just about tasks and your job responsibilities, and checking this off, but really think about career development. I think that's very important, because if you have a really great goal setting process with your employees, as a leader you can challenge them to tap into talents, and strengths, and aspirations that are very compelling and important to them. We talked about some of these new generations coming in, one of the things that's very important to them, is looking at how are they going to develop personally and professionally on the job? So goals is a great way to do that.

Bob Parks: 11:39  Well exactly, and I think it's important to understand that so many times when we accept our role as a leader, we forget that it's still important for us to listen. And so, in the setting of goals, it's important that they be set in a dialogue that you get the input from the employees, so that you know you have this kind of commitment and that they're excited about the things you've asked them to do. The other thing that's important, and that's a whole subject we'll talk about in a minute, called feedback. The other thing that's important is goals have to be connected to a reward system. Those two things, both of which we'll talk about in a minute, feedback and rewards, are critical to setting really good operational goals.

Susan Hall: 12:32  We've talked about purpose and direction and how that's critical to answer the question employees have around, "Where are we going as an organization?" And then also, goals as a way to address, "Well, what's expected of us?" What's next?

Bob Parks: 12:52  I think as I just mentioned, the next thing that the leaders have to understand is the whole element of feedback. The only communication that is appropriate in any organization is two-way communication. The term we used to use a lot of years ago was participative communication, but so many times, the communication in a work unit tends to be top down.

There's no leader that I've ever met, that I think even exists, that can operate without the input of his employees. When you think of feedback, on the one hand, does the leader provide information and direction needed and does he or she listen to the feedback from their employees around improving performance. So again, we're focused on performance, and the question is very simple it's, "How am I doing?" I mean they want to know how they're doing, and it's important for you to make sure that's always in sight. I think the critical part of feedback is that it allows for correction. Nobody's perfect, every employee could probably do better, and feedback allows us to adjust, or correct, or improve.

If you're not giving them feedback, the one thing that's important about an organization is that there's never a vacuum of information in an organization. If it's not filled with the correct information that you want your work unit to have, the employees are filling it with what they're making up and we used to call that, "water cooler conversation." They used to just make up stuff. It's important that you keep that channel filled with the correct information.

Susan Hall: 15:00  Because we all tend to be really creative.

Bob Parks: 15:07  Exactly, and again, focused on their goals and making sure that they're given every opportunity to give you feedback on what could work better and what improvements need to be made.

Susan Hall: 15:18  Bob, let me ask you your thoughts on this, because we know that feedback and coaching is critical, and yet, I think managers and leaders are really struggling with this because they have so much responsibility put on them. I was just working with a sales organization where the sales leaders told me that about 80 percent of their time is spent on administration. So, how do they make time for that?

Bob Parks: 15:46  Well, I think the important thing around feedback and coaching is to understand that it is not an additional task that you have to do. Feedback and coaching is what you are, you need to be coaching all the time. For example, you talk to your employees, you talk to them probably on a semi-regular basis even if they're remote, you talk to them on the phone. And so, those are the moments when you ask for feedback, you give feedback, you do your coaching, and it's not a separate activity that you have to add to your to-do list. It's something that you should be doing on a regular, ongoing, conversational basis. It doesn't mean that you have to add a lot of extra activities to a plate that's already certainly too full. I think that's a real, real key to it. It should be a natural part of our everyday conversation.

Susan Hall: 16:52  Right. We've talked about setting good, compelling, realistic goals and the importance of two-way feedback. I know another question that employees often ask is, "OK so, what's in it for me?" How do you address that?

Bob Parks: 17:28  Well, let me just close the feedback loop, because I want to make a point for leaders that might be listening, that without this feedback and this regular communication, we've seen it over, and over, and over again. You get disruption. You don't get just low performance, you get disruption in the organization. It's not a nice to have, it's a must do. I just want to close with that point, as far as feedback. Rewards, you know, it's an obvious question that employees ask and that's, "What's in it for me?", and it's OK for them to ask that question. The interesting thing about rewards, that many leaders miss is, what is rewarding is defined by the employee. So many times, leaders make one of two mistakes. They predetermine that more money is the appropriate reward for everybody or they decide that what's rewarding for them personally is rewarding for everybody that works for them, and those are two fatal mistakes.

It's important that regular recognition, that regular rewards are tied to the employee's job, but, you have to take a minute and ask them, what do they find rewarding? Now, in all the research we've done, we have found that in that initial conversation, especially if it's a superficial conversation, about 93 percent of employees say it's money, because who's not going to tell their boss that they don't want more money. Right? But, when we do independent research or when the question is asked in a sincere, conversational manner, we find that interesting enough, money doesn't even make the top 10 lists of what people value as far as rewards. Think about what are the kinds of things that are rewarding to people? What kind of recognition might be valuable to them, to somebody where both parents work and they have four kids at home, maybe being able to come in an hour later or be able to work from home a half day is more than enough reward for that person. It's real important that they understand that their contribution is valued and that you as a manager value it. If they do it well, they need to know what will happen.

Susan Hall: 20:10  It sounds to me, just like in that example you gave, that it's important for the leader, the manager to really know their employee to a degree and be able to have those conversations with them, because sometimes we don't necessarily, in that example you gave, that employee may not have even thought that a half day of working at home was an option. So having that ongoing dialogue with your employee, and really understanding them, and knowing a little bit about their life, and their aspirations could be really important.

Bob Parks: 21:00  If your employees aren't feeling rewarded, they aren't feeling like they're being recognized for the good work they're doing. I want you to remember that statistic, "55 percent of all employees are not engaged in their work," and that unengaged employee is not a high performing employee. You're not a good manager if you don't have high performing people working for you, it's just by definition. So it's important. The other thing about rewards that people miss so much of the time is that there are three things that make up a reward that's valuable. It has to be personal. It has to be a reward that I feel as an employee is meaningful to me. Second, it has to be immediate. In other words, when I finish a project or do something that is exceptional, I need to hear it, receive a reward, or get the recognition as close to that event as possible, so that it's immediate. And the third thing is, I need to know that if I do a good job and if I proved my performance that there's absolutely going to be some kind of reward in it for me.

Personal, immediate, and certain are three very important things. If you think about it, even with money, which everybody thinks is the ultimate reward. It's never immediate, it's probably many times, not that personal because the raise comes in the form of, "Well, the corporation has decided that everybody gets 3 percent this year. It'll start in six months at your next annual review." Well alright, that's not personal, that's not immediate. If you want to have an impact, if you want rewards to have an impact, even the littlest piece of recognition needs to be immediate, personal, and certain. You can do that on a phone call with your team by just calling out, "Susan, you did a great job on whatever project you were working on." It doesn't take a lot, doesn't cost a lot, but Susan will quickly learn that "When I excel, when I go over and above and beyond, I will be rewarded." And it's personal, it's immediate, and it's certain.

Susan Hall: 23:43  Right, that's really helpful. I know there's a fifth question and that is, where do we go for help? Can you address that?

Bob Parks: 23:50  Well, it's again, it is one of the five questions that all employees want to know, where do I go if I need help? The bigger question is, does the leader show a concern for the development of their employees and do they provide support and coaching to improve performance? Again, as I said before, nobody's perfect, no employee is never going to make a mistake. The key here, the key to having a supportive organization is the element of punishment. So many times, I've heard leaders say, "Yes, my doors always open, any time you have a question, you can come in," etc., etc., but when the employee does that there's some recrimination, there's some, "Well, you really don't know that you should know that. I can't understand why you don't know that." That's not going to get the employee to come back. I think it's really critical that any kind of negative implication to support will destroy the whole cultural norm around, "This is a place where I can get better, I can grow, I can improve, and people here are willing to help me".

Susan Hall: 25:11  I think that's so important. One of the things that I most appreciate about your leadership Bob, is that you trust your employees to make decisions and you listen. Even if we come up with an idea or a thought and it doesn't get adopted by the organization. I always feel like I'm heard and I know I'm getting personal here, but that is one of the reasons that I decide to stay and contribute my talents at SEG is because I feel like I'm part of that team. I understand and I think that a lot of times managers don't realize that they are, as you said, punishing, but if they even say something like, "Wow, you know, I'm surprised you would say that," just an off-handed comment like that can shut an employee down. So, I think that's a really critical point.

Bob Parks: 26:11  Well exactly. And every leader should understand that when they're employees are looking for support there are a couple different areas. The first and obvious area of support is, are they able? I mean do they know how to do what they're supposed to do. But, there's another one and that is, are they willing? They may know exactly what they have to do but, it may be an attitude issue, and that needs to be addressed and supported just like, are they able? Then I think the other thing is to understand that employees have to have the skill, they have to have the will, and they have to fit into the work unit. Those three areas are going to be the three areas where support is going to be mostly needed and those are the areas that you need to be asking questions about, and to your point, if you're going to be a good leader, you're going to have to listen.

Susan Hall: 27:19  So Bob, we've covered a lot here today and I believe that while there are certain core leadership practices you can spend your whole life improving your leadership and learning about leadership. We've tried to distill it down into five key questions that employees have and those are, where are we going? The leadership practice there is really around purpose, mission, direction. Secondly, what's expected of us? We've discussed how talking with the employee and coming up with some compelling goals for them, that stretch them, that are realistic, that are achievable, but also bring them to a higher level in their career fulfillment are important in terms of goals. The third question is, how are we doing? We discussed how feedback and two way feedback is critical. The fourth is, what's in it for us? Recognition and rewards, and how it's very important for the manager to understand what's important to that particular employee so it's personal, it's relevant, it's timely. And finally, the fifth is, where do we go for help? That's all about support and to be listening and participative and have no sense of punishment or recrimination for that employee coming to you for help. Those are the five practices again. Certainly, sounds simple, but we could fill volumes of books and certainly courses on these five different practices. Is there anything else that you would add to what we've talked about today before we sign off on today's podcast?

Bob Parks: 29:11  I guess my final thought would be that if you go into work tomorrow morning and you sit at your desk, the one thing I want you to think about is that for decades research has indicated that America is over managed and under led. So as you think about your role as a leader, I would hope that you'll think about, how can I micromanage less and lead more?

Susan Hall: 29:38  Good, good words too to go on and lead by. Well, Bob thank you so much. It's always a pleasure to talk with you, I always learn something and I hope our listeners have as well. For our listeners, check out the link in our podcast description for links to articles that summarize these five questions and practices that Bob shared with us today, as well as a free download of the research article that we referenced. If you have any further questions or would like to discuss, we're always thrilled to hear from our clients and we're always learning too, so if you've got some thoughts on these leadership practices, we certainly want to hear that. Please feel free to reach out to us at

Additional Resources

The 5 Best Leader/ManagerQuestions
Turning High-Performers into Managers

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Published: September 27, 2017


Susan Hall

Vice President- Business Development & Performance Improvement

Susan brings over 20 years of experience working with global markets and organizations, helping them navigate through tough economic challenges while maintaining their margins. Since joining SEG in 1995, she has had the privilege of working with organizations that truly value the development of their employees and recognize the impact their people have on their bottom line results. Susan graduated from Pennsylvania State University with a double major in business management and speech communication. She has also completed course work toward her master's degree at Johns Hopkins University.

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