The most important question to jump-start any meeting

During the seven decades of my career, I have had a great track record of building outstanding teams. I have always felt it important to concentrate on our goals, not the size of our organization.

To me, measuring profits has always been a better yardstick than the size of our budgets. There is little point in developing a $10,000 accounting system to track 10 cent pencils.

I credit much of my success to how well these teams performed. While knowing your team and supporting them in times good and bad are critical, defining a culture and setting expectations are equally essential. Communication is the key — there should be no surprises. If I’m in the loop, I’m on your team.

I find the most important question I can ask to start a meeting is simply, “Whaddya got?”

That question forces my team members to be well informed in their area of operation and to bring value to the table. Knowing the question is coming also encourages everyone to be in the game, and on their game, and triggers knowledge sharing among the team.

My team learns that only two possible responses will prompt my immediate scorn.

“Nothing.” Then why are you here?

And the worst: “Can I be honest with you?” Oh, so you haven’t been honest with me before?

Whenever a new team member invariably ventures into this territory, the more senior members wince, knowing how I will respond. More often than not, they posed the very same question at one time.

Junior or senior, young or old, all my team members are held to the same standard, and learn to bring value to the table each meeting. Communication should know no age boundaries.

I thrive on surrounding myself with bright, young minds. The ability to learn and adapt is critical to ongoing success. Being able to count on full participation and the candor of the team is critical to that process.

It wasn’t so long ago when I was in my 80s, running a major operation and bragging about the average age of my team being 35, and someone joked, “Yeah, but when Pickens is gone it will be 25.”

Part of leadership is taking risks and building confidence in yourself. Urging those qualities in your team is just as important. You have to serve many apprenticeships throughout your life. Show me somebody who isn’t willing to serve an apprenticeship, and I’ll show you somebody who won’t go far.

In corporate America, those who lack confidence surround themselves with people who continually stroke their egos. With my teams, strong people found their apprenticeships to be surprisingly short.

Leadership is the quality that transforms good intentions into positive action; it turns a group of individuals into a team. I learned early, in business as well as politics, that people love a leader. They like decisive action.

You lead by example. You don’t run over your personnel but you don’t pump them up with false praise either. And one of the most important lessons I could imprint upon these young minds was the old Boy Scout motto, “Be prepared.”

When I am on the road, I am careful to block out several times each day to call into the office and work my way through the team. Each conversation begins the same: “Whaddya got?”

Someone once told me that I would have made a great editor because I was always checking around the various beats of our operation to accumulate information and sniff out trends. The goal is to mine the details, and not waste anyone’s productive time — all of which puts me in a better position to lead.

That’s essential in good business. It has worked well for me.