I have a buddy named Ben who lives in Australia. We met while working and living together on the shores of the Northern Chesapeake Bay. He is a school-teacher and part time paramedic about 8 hours north of Sydney.  Ben is a great guy and he is one heck of a teacher. About a year ago we were talking on the phone and he had asked me to design a professional development activity for his school colleagues. He wanted it to be experiential in nature and explained he had overheard many colleagues voicing frustrations with the school atmosphere. Basically, many of the members felt there was lack of personal awareness and responsibility from all levels of the organizational chart and it seemed to have led to frustration.

Ben and I talked through an experiential activity that would be fun and insightful. We talked about meaningful processing questions and how the activity would point out organizational “Phantom Rules”(rules that we make up or assume) and how those rules were putting everyone in their own little box with tall walls, or silos. It was a great activity. We spent time wording it very carefully to set Ben up for success.

On the day of the training, the normal things happened. Everyone groaned at the notion of working in a group. No one ever wants to pay attention in a professional development seminar that wasn’t their idea.  But Ben pressed on. He captured their attention with excitement, movement, and laughter. He was impressed when it came time to debrief. Everyone was invested in the conversation, heads were nodding, conversation was deep and insightful, all in all, a success. Ben was excited at how well it was received. He was applauded by his administrators and even had conversations about me coming over to Australia to run a week-long professional development for pre-term training.

A month later, Ben rang me again. He relented that for about 2 weeks it seemed conversation “sort of changed” and it felt more like an “after conference high” (you know the one, when you go off solo to a professional conference and you get filled with all the excitement and new ideas.  Then they send you back into the abyss of your organization with all the people that didn’t get any of that fun stuff.  Oh! And they don’t tell you what you should do on day one, and to expect that no one will want to listen to the over excited “company man”).  That’s where Ben was; frustrated his effort, and mine, was in vain.

I explained that I expected this to happen. I would have guessed it would have lasted for much less. I told Ben if he wanted everyone to work like a community, he needed to show them what it felt like. What did he need to do on day 1?

Pro Tip: if you are in a position to invest in professional development and you want it to be meaningful and create change, it has to be a long term commitment with a skills trainer who will work with all levels of your organization.  A “shot in the arm” will not do the trick and will be a wasted investment in time and money. It must be comprehensive organizational coaching with buy-in from all levels.

In the summer of 2006, I was put in charge of a summer camp that served children with special needs and came from an at-risk environment. Talk about a double whammy. I didn’t quite know what to expect but I learned a lot about special needs kids, at-risk environments and myself that summer.  What I found out about the staff I worked with was that we didn’t always have the answers as to what a child may need at any one moment and I began asking the following question, a lot.  I call it the Success Inquiry:  What do you need to be successful?

We found that it did three things: 1. It potentially made the person being asked the question to identify the reason why they might be out of control or anxious. 2. It let them know that we needed more information in order to change the environment or feeling. Children sometimes don’t have the vocabulary for this, or truly don’t know what they need, so we would make suggestions or ask them to help us identify 5 options (Rule of 5). 3. In most cases, this would identify at least one thing that would change the behavior. Therefore, there was an expectation that the behavior would end if we followed through or identify the next most pressing need.          

I said it so much, my staff and campers began making fun of me for it, but it worked, and we all knew it worked.

For this statement to be effective it requires a couple of things from the asker:

  1. It requires compassion with an emphasis on listening.


      2. It requires follow through. A key pillar of trust building.

I explained these to Ben. I told him compassion and follow through have a lot of impact in the positive development of a community. Further if you have a community that is full of compassion and follow through than one person’s challenge becomes everyone’s challenge and one person’s triumph becomes everyone’s triumph.

So, I challenged Ben to go into work on Monday and begin checking in with his immediate team members and before leaving the conversation say, “Is there anything I can do for you to help you be successful today?” I could tell Ben felt weird saying the statement. I warned him he was going to get some strange looks, he might even be mocked, but keep a look out for the one person who is having a bad day and that will be the first person to take him up on in.  I explained, like anything else, it always feels a little cheesy or weird at first but keep asking. I told him it was utterly important once they take him up on his offer, he must follow through on their needs immediately.

On the second day of week 2, Ben checked in with a team member who was very frustrated with a situation involving a child and consequently, parents. Ben stuck his head in, and said, “It sounds like you’re having a rough day. Is there anything you need to be successful?” (This was an extension of compassion.)  Out of frustration, and annoyance of the question, she threw a stack of papers his way and said, “grade these!” (This was the test) Ben gathered the stack, went back to his room, graded them immediately and returned them with the offer to put them in a grade book if she would like and asked, “Is there anything else you need?” (This was the follow through) In awe, she slowly said, “No, that’s all.” (This is confusion, and a thank you.)  

In those 15 minutes, Ben recruited that next person on his “Success Caravan.” 

His teammate the next day apologized for her reaction and explained she was very frustrated and explained the situation she was dealing with. (An indicator of trust is vulnerability.) That situation led to a tremendous conversation about how Ben wanted to see her succeed. He explained if everyone is focused on everyone else’s success instead of their own, even if just for 10% of their time, the whole team would be wildly successful. Ben showed her it would take only 10 people to buy into this model for a team to be 100% more successful.

She felt the outcome and began also inquiring about others needs toward success the same day.

The great thing about the Success Inquiry is that it works up and down the organizational flow chart. I use it with my co-workers as well as supervisors and leaders within organizations that I serve. It gets chuckles at first and lot of strange looks especially when you go up the chart but over time you will beat them down and everyone becomes an invested partner in organizational success.

The next step:  Start using the “Success Inquiry” asking the same co-worker (or significant other or child) every day for 2 weeks. “Is there anything you need to be successful today?” Start today! Yes, even in a pandemic. Then listen with compassion. Build their trust through follow-through. If within two weeks you don’t have someone asking you the question back…You’re next ice cream is on me!!!   

You can’t control a crisis, but you can support someone through one.