The Happy Engineer Podcast

161: How Asking an Obvious Question Made Me $30K in One Day

Are you leaving untapped potential in your engineering management career by not asking the right questions?

In this episode, I recount a pivotal moment in my career as a lead engineer at Whirlpool Corporation, where I wanted a top performance rating.

Through a simple yet profound question to my boss, I unearthed the key to exceptional results.

It took me about 8 hours to implement, and earned me a $30k bonus that year.

That’s the power of asking the right questions.

Join me as I delve into the transformative impact of asking obvious yet potent questions, and how it can propel you towards unparalleled success.

As you listen… Tap to DOWNLOAD my free Workbook: How to Influence & Get What You Want At Work (Powerful Questions for Engineering Managers), and start asking better questions

Want free coaching, LIVE? Join us in a live workshop for deeper training, career coaching 1:1, and an amazing community!  HAPPY HOUR Workshop Live with Zach!


The Happy Engineer Podcast

How Asking an Obvious Question Made Me $30K in One Day (for Engineering Managers)



LISTEN TO EPISODE 161: How Asking an Obvious Question Made Me $30K in One Day

Previous Episode 160: Build a Legacy You Can Be Proud Of with Shawn Dalcour & Keshia Robinson


Top Takeaways to Unlock Career Success with Powerful Questions

In this episode of The Happy Engineer Podcast, I share a story from my engineering career that highlights the power of asking obvious yet impactful questions, and how doing so led to significant career growth and financial reward.

Here are the top three insights:

1. The Power of Asking Obvious Questions of Your Boss: Don’t underestimate the impact of asking simple, direct questions to gain clarity and insight into what exceptional performance looks like in your role.

2. Courage to Ask: Often what hold engineering managers back is not only knowing a better question, but having the courage to ask it.  Courageous leadership is essential to grow into your full potential, ask the question!

3. Sharpen the Skill of Asking Better Questions: Mastery of asking powerful questions can lead to breakthroughs in your career, influence, and ability to get what you want at work… so ASK OFTEN.

To go deeper and build an action plan around these points and why all this matters, listen to this entire conversation.



Please note the full transcript is 90-95% accuracy. Reference the podcast audio to confirm exact quotations.

[00:00:00] Zach White: Back when I was a lead engineer in my career, I was doing system integration on big projects in North America, laundry at Whirlpool Corporation. It was a job I really loved. System integration and being a technical project lead was a strong point for me, but I came into a new calendar year. We’re kicking off the performance review cycle, and I wanted to know what it would take to have excellent performance.

Expand to Read Full Transcript

[00:00:31] For that year, the prior year I had earned a level two out of five rating. So the second highest, it was an exceeds expectation rating, which is a great result. Super happy about that. But there was that level one rating that I had missed and I really wanted to hit it this year. so I went to my leader, we had our annual objective setting meeting, a one on one where my major goals for the year were laid out.

[00:00:59] And I asked an obvious question. It’s an obvious question that you need to ask if you want to get clarity and results in your career. I asked him, Hey boss, what would it take for me to get a level one rating this year? Now, the truth is the initial response was not that interesting, right? Well, you have to be exceptional, deliver exceptional results.

[00:01:30] He said, yeah, great. What, what do exceptional results look like? And my boss gave me a couple of really key insights. He said, well, Zach exceptional results require cross functional impact. 

[00:01:45] exceptional results expand beyond our team. They last beyond this project and they have a cross functional impact bigger than just here in laundry engineering. I said, okay, great. I’m really glad to know that. Thank you for the insight. And we left the meeting and I got to work. Here’s what I did.

[00:02:08] I started asking all my cross functional partners, what is the biggest problem? That you have that engineering can help with. What are the things you need the most help with? And after three conversations, the procurement project lead for the program that I was working on, his name was Paul. Paul gave me a really simple insight that gave me the idea I needed.

[00:02:39] For exceptional results that year, Paul told me that his communication back and forth with engineering on the program was always slowed down by a lack of visibility into the master parts list for that new program and which components engineering Needed quoted by when, and there was just a lot of noise in the communication back and forth between individual component owners on the engineering side and the procurement professionals who needed to go out and quote those new components or even old components being used at new volumes to make sure that we were ready for the project.

[00:03:21] It was a simple communication challenge between engineering and procurement. And I looked at that and said, good grief, that’s an easy problem to solve. I think we can take care of that communication issue. No problem. You see, Whirlpool had just rolled out use of the Google G Suite internally. And Google Sheets was replacing Microsoft Excel.

[00:03:45] And we had this collaborative tool set for the first time. I said, this will be, this will be a really easy problem to solve. I got together with one other guy. In engineering who was really savvy with Google sheets. And I asked him a couple of questions, you know, Hey, how could we create something where our data and the collaborative sheet we’re using on engineering talks to the procurement team’s data and the Google sheets they’re using to track their process without us having to compete on the same sheet, we found an answer is really simple.

[00:04:16] I built that. New spreadsheet, one for engineering, one for the procurement team and made the two sheets talk to each other. 

[00:04:25] I put together the spreadsheet. It was not that hard. You can imagine how simple it would be for any engineer to create these spreadsheets, have them talk to each other. It’s a no brainer these days. Back then it was relatively new. I would estimate that the entire time invested. From having that one on one with my leader, having the three conversations with cross functional leaders, coming up with the idea, talking to Nick, my engineering colleague, and building those spreadsheets was no more than eight hours of total time.

[00:04:58] One day, one incremental day of work. And by the way, it wasn’t even like a weekend. I just worked this in, in between other things during my normal work hours. We launched that, we got buy in from all the key stakeholders on both sides, all the engineering teams started using it, procurement used it. Fast forward, we get to the end of the year, I got the level one exceptional performance rating.

[00:05:24] And when I asked my boss what was the key to delivering that result, he said, The master parts list, cross functional spreadsheet, the training and the, you know, building followership behind that and getting everybody using that tool and the streamlined process of communication and the value that created for the whole company and the fact that we’re now using it on all of our projects and it’s being used in other product categories beyond North America Laundry, that was the no brainer reason that your name was at the top of the list for a number one rating.

[00:06:00] Eight hours of work, a number one exceptional results rating, and I got an additional 30, 000 bonus that year because of that performance. 30, 000 of incremental compensation. For eight hours of initiative on my part, everything else was woven into the work I would have been doing anyway, the conversations I would have been having anyway.

[00:06:28] It was that one idea and it all began by asking a really obvious question. I wanted exceptional results and I didn’t know how to get them. And instead of Trying to figure that out on my own, I just asked the question, Hey boss, what does exceptional results look like? How do I get them? What do I need to do to go get a number one?

[00:06:58] I guarantee in your career right now, in your life right now, there’s an obvious question that you’re not asking. powerful questions. In many cases, obvious ones always precede powerful answers, and in many cases, easy, obvious answers, questions lead answers follow. I talk about that on this podcast in every single episode, in every single interview, I ask the guest, what is the question?

[00:07:29] We’ve had some amazing responses to that finishing of the interview. Some of them were really eyeopening for me as well. But you got to ask yourself, what is that question that I’m not asking? How do I get better at asking better questions? Sometimes the thing that will unlock the results that you really, really want.

[00:07:54] They’re not complex strategies. They’re not difficult things to do being a number one Exceptional performer in my company that year did not require harder work It didn’t require me working nights and weekends It did not mean doing more of the same things that I was already doing more does not get you growth and Promotion and performance in your career.

[00:08:19] More work will not get you there. Many engineers fall into the trap of thinking, well, I simply need to do better work than my peers. If I can do the job better than someone else, that will be what gets me a top performance review. That will be what gets me that big bonus. That’s what will help me make more money, get promotions.

[00:08:39] I agree. Better is better than more. Better is better than more. If you’re choosing between the two, just doing more work, or doing better work, a higher quality of work, having a skill, sharpened to the point where you can do it better than other people. Yes, that is in the right direction, but it’s still not as powerful.

[00:09:05] As doing something different, different is better than better, better is better than more, but different is better than better. What I found through an obvious question and getting a simple, clear answer was something different, something that other engineers were not doing. That is what you want to look for in differentiating your performance and results.

[00:09:33] What is that unique value added differentiated activity? In marketing, we might call it the unique selling proposition, that X factor, the thing that makes you unique. What is that? What will you do that isn’t that hard to do, but no one else is doing it? Finding that, very often on the other side of a simple, powerful, and in many cases obvious question.

[00:10:07] Here’s what you want to do today. Ask yourself, what question? Is not being asked, what obvious question do I need to ask my boss? I had an amazing engineering manager, super talented guy come into one of our sessions recently and say, Hey Zach, I am stuck. I don’t know how to get my boss on board with a new initiative that we would like to kick off in my department.

[00:10:41] How can I get my boss to support the new initiative? Interesting question. Well, I mirrored back. I said, well, have you asked your boss specifically what must be true about the initiative for them to support it? And the answer was no. Actually, all I did was tell my boss about the initiative and right now he’s not supporting it.

[00:11:08] I said, well, how about we go ask your boss what must be true to support it? It’s a really obvious question, and let’s see if we can go include those elements into the program. He did that. He got a really clear answer. He said, well, in order for us to be able to do this, you need to change X, Y, and Z, and then I would be open to putting this in front of the vice president and seeing if we can get funding.

[00:11:34] It’s like, obvious question. What obvious question are you not asking and who do you need to ask it? Take some time, get clear, and begin building a mastery of asking better questions. If this is an area that feels like a weakness for you, I actually just released a new guide That goes through powerful questions, the principles of powerful questions, and bunches of specific examples, questions you can use in one on ones with your direct reports, questions you can use at quarterly feedback reviews, questions you can use if you’re ever stuck, if you feel frustrated, if you’re, caught in a place where there’s no progress or you’re not moving, you need to get unstuck, A series of questions you can use to get unstuck 20 or 30, just transformational questions.

[00:12:28] You can ask any time, really powerful guide around powerful questions. If this is an area that you need to sharpen the sword, go into the show notes, grab that free download. It’s a great PDF. It’s something you might want to print out and actually use.

[00:12:42] in your day to day life, it’s super helpful to have quick access to powerful questions. I have multiple resources like that for myself as a coach, not just to use with clients who need help in breaking loose and finding breakthrough in their own career, but also for myself. The questions I ask myself are incredibly important.

[00:13:02] It’s all about how to influence and get what you want at work. To do that, you need to ask powerful questions. One obvious question plus one day of work earned me 30, 000. That is the 80 20 rule. That’s the Pareto Principle at its finest. And the same is true for you.

[00:13:28] There are just a few activities. That are differentiated between what you’re doing right now and hitting an entire new gear of speed and performance in your career and the results that you want that come with it. Don’t just put in longer hours. Don’t settle for more. And don’t constantly focus on just those one and two percent improvements in becoming better.

[00:13:52] Those are great things. Don’t, don’t hear what I’m not saying. I’m not saying that’s bad, but here’s what I am saying. If you want to move quickly towards the career and life of your dreams, ask the questions that will uncover what is different that you can be doing to get to that next level. Grab a copy of the guide.

[00:14:11] I think it’s going to help you a ton in sharpening this skill set. And if you’re a manager, if you’re a director, it’s essential. If you’re an IC, getting a head start on this skill, it’s also going to help you. crush comfort, create courage, ask better questions, and let’s do this.