If you ask 10 CEOs to name the most powerful tool at their disposal I guarantee you’ll get 10 different answers. And not one of them will be correct. Make no mistake, there is only one correct answer: Q&A.

When I start working with a new client – usually a CEO – he will tell me lots of things about his company, his business and his team. Some of them will be true. Some of them will not be true. Part of my job is to figure out which is which.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying all CEOs are liars. What I am saying is that all CEOs are human and all humans are fallible. Sometimes they have the wrong information. Sometimes they draw incorrect conclusions. Other times their perception is skewed by bias of some sort.

Many are the ways that humans fail. That goes for CEOs too. And here’s the thing. They will inevitably make bad decisions they’re not even aware of until somebody with no skin in the game shows up and sheds some light – some outside perspective – on what’s really going on.

The way people like me do that and, more important, do it well, is by using the most important tool in business: Q&A. We ask leading questions and listen carefully to the answers, including how people answer. And we continue to ask leading follow up questions of all the right people until we know the truth.

Of course that can take a while. It also takes a lot of experience – not just to know what to ask but to understand what the answers mean. Also to use that information to determine what a company and its leadership team are doing right, what they’re doing wrong and what they should do differently to change the outcome for the better.

Nothing I’ve experienced in my career is more challenging than troubleshooting a company. Absolutely nothing. And that’s why I love doing it so much. Hell, I gave up my own career as an executive to do this – to help other executives figure out how to build better companies and fix them when things go wrong.

And I wouldn’t go back in a million years. Why? It’s the Q&A. I love the process of using Q&A to test out hypotheses, tell fact from fiction and determine the right path forward for a company and its many stakeholders. It’s so rewarding I can’t tell you. But all the fun is in the Q&A.

It bears mentioning that all this started with Socrates – inventor of the Socratic method of asking leading questions to elicit ideas, expose assumptions and come up with better answers or solutions to problems. You may know that method as critical thinking – also the basis for the scientific method and our legal system.

So you see Q&A isn’t just the most powerful tool in the CEO’s or the strategy consultant’s toolbox. It’s also the most powerful tool in the scientist’s toolbox. The lawyer’s toolbox. The doctor’s toolbox. The engineer’s toolbox. Every thinking person’s toolbox. Yours too. So use it.

Image credit Miles Cave via Flickr