Most experts will tell you that annual letters are filled with bloated back-patting and read as dry as toast.

But Bill and Melinda Gates aren't most leaders, and the Gates Foundation--the largest in the world--isn't your everyday charity.

The power couple just published their foundation's 10th annual letter and they memorably answered the 10 toughest questions they consistently get:

  • Why don't you give more in the United States?
  • What do you have to show for the billions you've spent on U.S. education?
  • Why don't you give money to fight climate change?
  • Are you imposing your values on other cultures?
  • Does saving kids' lives lead to overpopulation?
  • How are President Trump's policies affecting your foundation's work?
  • Why do you work with corporations?
  • Is it fair that you have so much influence?
  • What happens when the two of you disagree?
  • Why are you really giving your money away--what's in it for you?

The Gates didn't shy away from some pretty tough, even personal questions. Their responses were well-thought-through and provided for an engaging read. By the time I finished reading it, I felt connected to their work.

You can take the same approach in addressing your troops too. For your next "town hall" or "all-hands" meeting, consider asking and answering some of the toughest questions on employee's minds. Here's why the approach is so effective:

1. It gives the opportunity to show emotion, humanity, and vulnerability.

Tough questions take bravery and vulnerability to answer and help employees better connect with those asking and answering them. For many of the questions, the Gates stated that while they had made progress, it wasn't enough. They admitted it wasn't fair that they have so much wealth and influence (while reinforcing the purity of their objectives). Melinda admitted that in working with Bill sometimes reporters ask "What happens when you disagree?" with the implication that it must be Bill that makes all the decisions--which is not the case and not appreciated.

Bill leveraged some of the questions to show some personality and highlight his love of learning, as evidenced in this statement:

"At Microsoft, I got deep into computer science. At the foundation, it's computer science plus biology, chemistry, agronomy, and more. I'll spend hours talking to a crop researcher or an HIV expert, and then I'll go home, dying to tell Melinda what I've learned."

The net result is that tough questions require atypical answers, answers that put emotions and emotional intelligence on display and that ultimately better connect employees to the mission and their leaders.

2. It lets the organization know that its leaders are in tune with the biggest issues--and the facts.

You can't hide elephants in the room when you point right at them. A tough question format allows leaders to demonstrate that they're in touch with and thinking deeply about the potentially divisive issues the organization faces. People want to know their leaders are thinking ahead for the next wave of growth, or for wisdom in spearheading a turnaround. 

To that point, this approach can be especially effective in times of crisis. I've been in "Tough Questions" sessions during a crisis where the leaders were able to go right after what was on people's minds, including issues that affected them personally (like "Will we still have jobs? etc.). When the leaders demonstrated they fully grasped the situation, the majority of the meeting moved quickly to talking actions to be taken/solutions in progress. 

The tough question format also lets leaders put the facts on the table when rumors or misperceptions might be swirling. In the question about climate change, the Gates clarified that they do in fact give to this cause but often do so through their personal investments versus their foundation.

3. It provides a platform to deliver reality and hope. 

A tough question format allows leaders to get right at the cold reality of big issues but also allows them to halo that discussion with much-needed hope. Bill and Melinda opened their annual letter with such a nod to reality and hope:

"Being an optimist isn't about knowing that life used to be worse. It's about knowing how life can get better. And that's what really fuels our optimism. Although we see a lot of disease and poverty in our work--and many other big problems that need to be solved--we also see the best of humanity."

So ask tough questions, give great answers, and build your own foundation--of trust and connectivity.

Published on: Feb 28, 2018
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