My dad died when I was 3 years old, so my older brother, Allen, grew up more quickly than planned and became my father figure. He went to college, and I attended that same college. He became an accountant, and then I became an accountant. He taught me the importance of a strong work ethic and that a person’s integrity should never be sacrificed. Allen provided the core values from which my moral compass and motivations would build over time.

Teresa, my wife and best friend of 30 years, also taught me valuable lessons about the centrality of family to both home and work. At home, we depend on each other and our family for counsel and grounding, and we share financial and emotional responsibility. Teresa helped me to realize that there must be a reason to get up in the morning, to do more, to do better today than we did yesterday in service to those who depend on us.

Though I’m immensely grateful to have had many other mentors throughout my life and career, my brother and my wife provide my foundation. Each of us has a different foundation, a unique “why” driving our careers.


For us to be the most effective leaders, we need to understand the “why” factors of our teams: their core beliefs, motivations, needs, and struggles. As a case example of this leadership perspective, our organization recently implemented an initiative to help us understand the “why” for each team member. We wanted to know each employee’s story. The informal yet structured one-on-one format included:

  • Understanding what led employees to our organization, what kept them with us, what would make them happier, what we could do to help lead them and provide what they needed, and, most importantly, what we needed to understand and learn from them as they led us.
  • Talking through our organization’s strategic objectives. Providing a clear understanding of our organization’s goals and objectives. It was critical for us to discuss how individual roles contribute to the success of the organization. We needed to get everyone pulling in the same direction, understanding where we’re going together, how we’re going to get there, what’s in it for everyone, and why the results are important.
  • Searching for opportunities and suggestions for improvement as well as strengths that we can leverage, what answers are already being provided at the water cooler, what’s a waste of time and energy, and where we’re standing strong.

Here are the top 10 highlights of the discussion agenda:

  1. What were the employee’s experiences, and what led him or her to us?
  2. Why did the employee stay with us?
  3. What sets our organization apart in terms of employee relations, benefits, structure, and atmosphere, and what would each employee like to see changed? Are we providing the right benefits? What makes the leading competitors for talent attractive, and which do we need to emulate?
  4. Discuss the subject of salary directly and clearly. Is compensation aligned with responsibilities? Move beyond if the employee wants to make more money—challenge him or her for an opinion of the fairness of compensation based on position and responsibilities. What factors are out of sync, and what would it take to resolve them?
  5. Why does the employee have the existing position with us? If the employee weren’t with us, what would she or he be doing with another company?
  6. Find out what would tempt the employee to accept another position elsewhere. Then take money off the table. If money were the same, what would prompt a job search?
  7. What would it take, regardless of what competitor for talent came knocking, for the employee to answer: “Thanks for the consideration, but I’m good.” If the employee can’t say that currently, find out what it would take to get there.
  8. Discuss what the employee sees as his or her overall career plan. Candidly discuss types of future options available given the organization, its structure, turnover, opportunities, and how to prepare the employee.
  9. Discuss the annual performance review process, content, and results. What would the employee change? What value is received? Is it just a checkbox?
  10. If the employee completed a performance review of peers, direct manager, and senior management, what would it reflect as positives and opportunities for improvement?


We came away with many lessons from these interviews, and I hope you’ll find them helpful. Expect some employees to be more open than others. Try not to press, pry, or promote gossip; instead, just guide the conversation casually. Listen more than talk. Be especially attuned for trends and recurring themes. Expect some gut hits that will make you want to be defensive, but do your best to stay calm without discounting the feedback or shutting down the conversation. Expect ideas on how to improve leadership as well as concerns that you didn’t know existed. Expect smiles and personal stories about the good things that are happening that will make you proud to be a part of the work family. Expect stories of hardships and hurdles that will motivate you to help and find a way to resolve them.

Each employee came to your organization for a reason. They get up each day to be a part of what you’re trying to accomplish. They’re still with you for a reason. You’ve made a significant investment in them, and they’ve made a commitment and investment in you. Let’s learn from each other, find out what makes each other happy, and find out what our motivations are. I’m confident you and your team will be rewarded with leadership inspiration. Simply ask why, be interested, and listen. Everyone has a story.


The IMA® Leadership Academy provides leadership opportunities for all members. From leadership assessment to leadership courses offered in person as well as through WebEx to participation opportunities in mentoring, be it reverse or traditional, the IMA Leadership Academy can help you meet your leadership goals and improve your leadership skills. For more information, please visit the Leadership Academy website at

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