The Third Question
What makes for a great CEO? Many people’s lists are all about showcase virtues such as charisma, vision and strategic thinking. As valuable as those can be, they aren’t the whole story. When I asked some top executive recruiters what they look for, they spoke at length about a second set of hidden, everyday virtues.
Efficiency is on the list. So is self-reliance. And so is an ability to “read the room,” when people with different interests are crammed together for a meeting or a negotiation. Such everyday strengths can’t be gauged in a single, dazzling moment. It takes time to draw them out. But it can be done.
Spotting clues about a CEO candidate’s everyday capabilities can come down to something as simple as having the nerve to ask “the third question,” says Thomas J. Friel, former chairman of the executive search firm of Heidrick & Struggles. As Friel points out, most boardroom discussions start at a high level of abstraction and generalities. It’s hard to tell much from the first question- and- answer
exchange on any topic. Even the initial follow-up question may dono more than scratch the surface.
Only when a questioner has the temerity to ask a third question do problems come out into the open. Likewise, it’s the third question that clarifi es the exact nature of success and its contributors. “It’s hard for directors to ask that third question,” Friel says. “Everything in the boardroom is set up so that one person isn’t supposed to monopolize the conversation.” If everyone talks a little bit, and
no one presses too far on any key issue, breakthroughs are rare. An hour- long meeting with a candidate can become not much more than
a festival of “hellos” and minor social bonding.