I don’t like to boss people around. I don’t get motivated by telling people what to do, I don’t take any pleasure in it. So I manage with curiosity, by asking questions.
In a typical day, I may have 50 conversations of some substance. But I so prefer hearing what other people have to say that I instinctively ask questions. If you’re listening to my side of a phone call, you may hear little but the occasional question.
Asking questions elicits information, of course. Asking questions creates the space for people to raise issues they are worried about that a boss, or colleagues, may not know about. Asking questions lets people tell a different story than the one you’re expecting. Most important from my perspective, asking questions means people have to make their case for the way they want a decision to go.
The movie business is all about being able to “make your case.” With Splash, the first big movie I produced, about a mermaid of all things, I had to make my case hundreds of times over seven years. After 30 years of successfully making movies, that hasn’t changed. If you’re going to survive in Hollywood—and I think if you’re going to survive and thrive anywhere in business—you have to learn to “make the case” for whatever you want to do.
Making the case means answering the big questions: Why this project? Why now? Why with this group of talent? With this investment of money? Who is the audience? How will we capture that audience, that customer? And the biggest question of all: What’s the story? What’s this movie about? (Or, if you’re not in the entertainment business, what’s the story of this product? What’s this product about?)
Making the case also means answering the detail questions: Why these songs in that order on the soundtrack? Why that supporting actress? Why that scene?
None of these are yes-or-no questions. They are open-ended. They are questions where the answer can itself be a story, sometimes short, sometimes longer.
Sometimes you need to ask questions that are even more open: What are you focused on? Why are you focused on that? What are you worried about? What’s your plan?
Asking questions creates a lot more engagement in the people with whom you work. It’s subtle. Let’s say you have a movie that’s in trouble. You ask the executive responsible for moving that movie along what her plan is. You’re doing two things just by asking the question: You’re making it clear that she should have a plan, and you’re making it clear that she is in charge of that plan. The question itself implies both the responsibility for the problem and the authority to come up with the solution.
If you work with talented people who want to do the work they are doing, they’ll step up. It’s a simple quality of human nature that people prefer to choose to do things rather than be ordered to do them. In fact, as soon as you tell me I have to do something—give a speech, attend a banquet, go to Cannes—I immediately start looking for ways to avoid doing it. If you invite me to do something, I’m much more likely to want to do it.
When you’re out on location, you can be spending $300,000 a day to make a movie. That’s $12,500 an hour, even while everyone is sleeping. When there’s trouble at $300,000 a day, you want to find a way to convince your stars to help you. You want to draw them in, not order them around.
Back in 1991, we were shooting the movie Far and Away. We had Tom Cruise as the lead. Tom was at the top of his career. He was only 29 years old, but he had already made Top Gun, The Color of Money, Rain Man, and Born on the Fourth of July.
Tom isn’t difficult to work with, but Far and Away was a challenging movie to get made. It was an old-fashioned epic, a story of two immigrants leaving Ireland for America at the turn of the last century. We shot in Ireland and the western United States. It got expensive, but it wasn’t overtly commercial. When we figured out what it was going to cost, the studio told me to find ways of cutting the budget.
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I went to Tom on the set. I said, “Look, you’re not the producer of this movie. But we all want to make it, we all have this vision of a movie we’re doing as artists, a story we care about. It’s going to be expensive, but we can’t spend as much money as it looks like we’re going to. We need to hold the line.” I said, “Can you be the team leader here with the cast and crew? Can you be the guy to set the example?”
He looked at me and said, “I’m 100% that guy!”
He said, “When I have to go to the bathroom, I’m going to run to the trailer and run back to the set. I’m going to set the pace for excellence and respect.”
And that’s exactly what he did. He led. He was motivated. And he motivated other people.
I didn’t tell Tom what to do. I didn’t order everybody to work harder, to make do with less. I explained where we were. Tom appreciated that I came to him with a problem, that I treated him as an equal, that I treated him as part of the solution. I allowed Tom to be curious about both the problem and how to fix it. Asking for people’s help—rather than directing it—is almost always the smart way of doing things, regardless of the stakes.
Questions can quietly transmit values more powerfully than a direct statement telling people what you want them to stand for. If I fly to Ireland from Los Angeles and start telling everybody that we need to save money, we need to film faster, cut effects, save costs on the catering—well, then I’m just the L.A. executive who flies in with the bad news and the marching orders.
If I sit down quietly with Tom and ask, “Can you be the leader here?” it’s a moment packed with values. We care about this movie. We’ve got to find a way of protecting the integrity of the story while living within a reasonable budget. I need help. And I have so much respect for Tom that I’m asking him to help me solve this problem, to help me manage the whole movie. This is a powerful message, packed into only six words, with a question mark at the end instead of a period.
Curiosity at work isn’t a matter of style. It’s much more powerful than that. If you’re the boss and you manage by asking questions, you’re laying the foundation for the culture of your company or your group. You’re letting people know that the boss is willing to listen.
This isn’t about being “warm” or “friendly.” It’s about understanding how complicated the modern business world is, how indispensable diversity of perspective is, and how hard creative work is. Here’s why it’s hard: because often there is no right answer.
That’s why asking questions at work, instead of giving orders, is so valuable. Because most modern problems—lowering someone’s cholesterol, getting passengers onto an airplane efficiently, or searching all of human knowledge—don’t have a right answer. They have all kinds of answers, many of them wonderful. To get at the possibilities, you have to find out what ideas and reactions are in other people’s minds. You have to ask them questions: How do you see this problem? What are we missing? Is there another way of tackling this? How would we solve this if we were the customer?
Questions create both the authority in people to come up with ideas and take action and the responsibility for moving things forward. Questions create the space for all kinds of ideas and the sparks to come up with those ideas. Most important, questions send a very clear message: We’re willing to listen, even to ideas or suggestions or problems we weren’t expecting.
As valuable as questions are when you’re the boss, I think they are just as important in every other direction in the workplace. People should ask their bosses questions. I appreciate it when people ask me the same kind of open-ended questions I so often ask: What are you hoping for? What are you expecting? What’s the most important part of this for you? Those kinds of questions allow a boss to be clear about things that the boss might think are clear, but which often aren’t clear at all.
Indeed, people at all levels should ask each other questions. That helps break down the barriers between job functions and also helps puncture the idea that the job hierarchy determines who can have a good idea.
I like when people at Imagine ask me questions for many reasons, but here’s the simplest and most powerful reason: If they ask the question, then they almost always listen to the answer. People are more likely to consider a piece of advice, or a flat-out instruction, if they’ve asked for it in the first place.
Imagine is hardly a perfect workplace. We have our share of dull meetings and unproductive brainstorming sessions. We miscommunicate, we misinterpret, we miss out on some opportunities, and we push forward some projects we should let go. But nobody is afraid to ask a question. Nobody is afraid to answer a question.