The One Question You'd Ask a CEO

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Last month, I sent an email to a select group of public companies. I had a simple request for them to answer three questions:

  1. What steps have you taken to navigate your business through the economic turmoil of the past 12 months?
  2. What are the top two or three metrics to which your business pays the closest attention?
  3. Now that the first decade of the new century is drawing to a close, we'd like to take a moment to reflect on what lies ahead. What excites you most about your business?

I thought these questions, a mix of review and preview, would be relevant to investors (and prospective investors). The answers I received ranged from thought-provoking to ho-hum. (Check out this exemplary response from Morningstar (Nasdaq: MORN  ) .)

Today, I want to know the one question you would ask of a chief executive officer. The person with the best comment (as determined by a panel of Fool editors) will win free Motley Fool gear.

The contest rules are here, but otherwise, there are no ground rules. My questions were broad and company-generic; yours can be particular and company-specific. They can be earnest or serious -- but the answer would have to reveal something of value for investors. For instance, in Roger & Me style, you could ask ...

  • ... Executives at Eastman Kodak (NYSE: EK  ) why they missed out on 2009's rally, and what they're doing about it.
  • ... The embattled leader of Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS  ) , Lloyd Blankfein, if he wishes his firm had remained a private partnership instead of going public.
  • ... Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) Steve Jobs and Ford's (NYSE: F  ) Alan Mulally, very simply: How do they plan on keeping it up?
  • ... Berkshire Hathaway's (NYSE: BRK-B  ) Warren Buffett: O ye Oracle, what do you see in store for 2010?

There's no limit on how many questions you can ask, although the winner will be selected for a single question, not a series of queries. The contest will be open until 8:00 p.m. EST on Thursday, Dec. 17, and again, we'll be mailing the winner a care package full of Fool gear.

The best comment posted in the below comments section (in fewer than 250 words) will win -- and I will also personally email the winning question to the company of your choice.

Brian Richards is the online managing editor at The Motley Fool. Brian does not own shares of any companies mentioned. Apple, Morningstar, and Berkshire are Motley Fool Stock Advisor picks. Berkshire is also an Inside Value selection. The Fool owns shares of Berkshire and Morningstar and has a disclosure policy that does not mess around.


Read/Post Comments (78) | Recommend This Article (22)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On December 15, 2009, at 3:12 PM, DanDzombakCAPS wrote:

    What are you doing that your competitors aren't doing yet?

  • Report this Comment On December 15, 2009, at 3:13 PM, DanDzombakCAPS wrote:

    What are you doing that your competitors aren't doing yet?

  • Report this Comment On December 15, 2009, at 3:19 PM, scagman wrote:

    What do you have in your product pipeline today that will give you a clear competitive advantage five years from now?

  • Report this Comment On December 15, 2009, at 3:20 PM, caltex1nomad wrote:

    You make How Much ? , for Doing What ???

  • Report this Comment On December 15, 2009, at 3:25 PM, XMFConnor wrote:

    Are you looking to increase your equity stake in the company, and if so, by when or at what price?

  • Report this Comment On December 15, 2009, at 3:26 PM, applebull wrote:

    Question for Steve Jobs at Apple.

    Why don't you split the stock to reduce the multiple? That would stop much of the manipulation and allow a whole new group of investors to own Apple.

  • Report this Comment On December 15, 2009, at 3:26 PM, WizardofMe wrote:

    If you were to have known about the latest recession in advance, what moves would you have made to whether the storm and would you begin making these moves now to put your company in a better position for the next recession?

  • Report this Comment On December 15, 2009, at 3:26 PM, XMFConnor wrote:

    Are you looking to increase your equity stake in the company, and if so, by when?

  • Report this Comment On December 15, 2009, at 3:28 PM, daveshouston wrote:

    My question is for Michael Dell:

    "Why don't you just shut it down and give the money back to the shareholders?"

  • Report this Comment On December 15, 2009, at 3:29 PM, theHedgehog wrote:

    Could you have gotten to where you are today without both inside information and dynastic advantage (having family influence and connections)? IOW, does a guy from Cornpoke Iowa, no matter his intelligence or abilities have even a tiny chance of getting to where you are?

  • Report this Comment On December 15, 2009, at 3:29 PM, LostInTheHaze wrote:

    Question to all top Bank Execs?

    When are you going to give us something in return for all the tax dollars you were so happy to take to cover your bad decisions in the first place. How about a fee reduction, remember you sell a service not a product.

  • Report this Comment On December 15, 2009, at 3:32 PM, LostInTheHaze wrote:

    Please explain why CEO's should be taking home 200X the average workers pay? It isnt the decisions of the workforce driving this economy into the dirt.

  • Report this Comment On December 15, 2009, at 3:34 PM, daveshouston wrote:

    Question for Steve Ballmer.

    Microsoft's stock price had risen continuously until the year 2000. It has been stagnant ever since. You took over as CEO in 2000. Coincidence?

    (reference: http://finance.yahoo.com/q/bc?s=MSFT&t=my)

  • Report this Comment On December 15, 2009, at 3:35 PM, globalsailor wrote:

    What are you planning to do about the potential decrease in value in the dollar?

  • Report this Comment On December 15, 2009, at 3:40 PM, catoismymotor wrote:

    Should you turn out to be a complete failure as CEO who do you think the board would choose as your replacement?

  • Report this Comment On December 15, 2009, at 3:42 PM, lh100 wrote:

    Without comparing to the industry, do you beleive your total compensation, including retirement benefits is adequate to your job (including being a public figure) and why?

    If not, what do you propose to either increase or decrease the overall compensation of CEOs ?

  • Report this Comment On December 15, 2009, at 3:43 PM, Clamchowda wrote:

    What were you thinking?!

  • Report this Comment On December 15, 2009, at 3:44 PM, TurksFan wrote:

    Who are the most important people in your company and why?

  • Report this Comment On December 15, 2009, at 3:44 PM, Clamchowda wrote:

    What the hell were you thinking !?!

  • Report this Comment On December 15, 2009, at 3:44 PM, VegasShark wrote:

    Question to The Fed & Uncle Sam:

    -Can Washington avoid tapping the taxpayers again?

    After committing $1 trillion to Wall Street, $100 billion to the auto industry and billions more in stimulus tax cuts and other incentives to various industries, will the government ever be able to say 'no' again when an industry holds its hand out? Will anyone ever believe Uncle Sam?

  • Report this Comment On December 15, 2009, at 3:47 PM, VegasShark wrote:

    Question to The Fed & Uncle Sam:

    Can Washington avoid tapping the taxpayers again?

    After committing $1 trillion to Wall Street, $100 billion to the auto industry and billions more in stimulus tax cuts and other incentives to various industries, will the government ever be able to say 'no' again when an industry holds its hand out? Will anyone ever believe Uncle Sam?

  • Report this Comment On December 15, 2009, at 3:48 PM, imhotdog wrote:

    Do you want fries with that?

  • Report this Comment On December 15, 2009, at 3:55 PM, markdleonard wrote:

    To Jaime Dimon -

    Comparing JP Morgan and Citigroup at this point after the financial crisis--how do you think Sandy feels about firing you?

  • Report this Comment On December 15, 2009, at 3:55 PM, markdleonard wrote:

    To Jaime Dimon -

    Comparing JP Morgan and Citigroup at this point after the financial crisis--how do you think Sandy feels about firing you?

  • Report this Comment On December 15, 2009, at 3:56 PM, irisid3 wrote:

    If one had an Ivy League MBA what opportunities for advancement exit at FORD Corp.?

    IrisId2

  • Report this Comment On December 15, 2009, at 3:58 PM, nobull2bear wrote:

    Not sure how explicitly a CEO is allowed to answer this question, but I would ask any CEO:

    Do you feel that the market-cap represented by your shares represents a fair value for your company, and if not, why not?

  • Report this Comment On December 15, 2009, at 4:06 PM, newmannp wrote:

    To Hasbro CEO Brian Goldner:

    Many, including the Motley Fool, think that Hasbro can become the next Marvel. Does leaning on toys and games made in the 1980s (Transformers, GI Joe's, Candy Land, Battleship, etc) really help forward thinking now? Are you using Marvel as a model for your future success?

  • Report this Comment On December 15, 2009, at 4:08 PM, newmannp wrote:

    What is the one thing that your company currently does that you know is not in the best interest of the country?

  • Report this Comment On December 15, 2009, at 4:22 PM, tkell31 wrote:

    Any CEO, other then the fact your boys vote to give you a bonus, what exactly do you do to earn it?

  • Report this Comment On December 15, 2009, at 4:25 PM, tkell31 wrote:

    I guess I should clarify. My question to any CEO, other then the fact your boys on the board vote to give you a bonus, what exactly do you do to earn that bonus that the average person would not be able to do?

  • Report this Comment On December 15, 2009, at 4:26 PM, tkell31 wrote:

    Do you feel bonuses are just part of corporate culture that have no basis on your actual impact on the bottom line?

  • Report this Comment On December 15, 2009, at 4:29 PM, tkell31 wrote:

    Why should anyone who works a 40 hour week make one ten thousandth (1/10,000) of what you make?

  • Report this Comment On December 15, 2009, at 4:48 PM, BoiseKen wrote:

    Reed Hastings -- Why are you using debt to fund stock buy backs after your company has seen a terrific run and some multiple expansion? Wouldn't be better to stop buy and use free cash flow to fund international expansion?

    Honestly, I would really like Mr. H to answer this question ... and soon. And I hope he would give an enlightening response, because this debt seems like a bone headed move from an otherwise great company and CEO.

  • Report this Comment On December 15, 2009, at 5:18 PM, ET69 wrote:

    To the Wall Street CEOs: After the Socialist revolution is successful - what will be your defense for egregious wages be at the Workers Tribunal ?

    To be followed by ,"Do you have any last words?"

  • Report this Comment On December 15, 2009, at 6:07 PM, Gherbcpa wrote:

    What multiple of the compensation of your company's average worker should your compensation package be and please don't respond that you don't set your compensation but the board does.

  • Report this Comment On December 15, 2009, at 6:14 PM, ynotc wrote:

    What are you doing to ensure continually increase market share profitably?

  • Report this Comment On December 15, 2009, at 6:18 PM, blesto wrote:

    Knowing what you knpw today, what would you have done different this time last year?

  • Report this Comment On December 15, 2009, at 6:29 PM, richie54 wrote:

    What specific examples from your background can you provide to prove your honesty and integrity?

  • Report this Comment On December 15, 2009, at 6:52 PM, Rustyismydog wrote:

    I will assume that you would agree that your company is an aggregation of resources (money, labor/expertise, brand, intellectual property, etc.) which you and your team manage on behalf of a number of constituencies (stockholders, employees, customers, community, et al). How do you, as CEO, undertake the setting of priorities in the allocation of those resources for the benefit of those competing constituencies?

  • Report this Comment On December 15, 2009, at 6:53 PM, Rustyismydog wrote:

    I will assume that you would agree that your company is an aggregation of resources (money, labor/expertise, brand, intellectual property, etc.) which you and your team manage on behalf of a number of constituencies (stockholders, employees, customers, community, et al). How do you, as CEO, undertake the setting of priorities in the allocation of those resources for the benefit of those competing constituencies?

  • Report this Comment On December 15, 2009, at 7:30 PM, MAURIZIO400 wrote:

    i'd ask steve jobs when he plans to retire.

  • Report this Comment On December 15, 2009, at 7:30 PM, geeraf wrote:

    To President Obama,

    Why do you continue to let Congress spend money that the government does not have? Why does "pork" live on? why do federal employess deserve a 2% raise with most private sector jobs not giving raises? You have spoken against the rising deficits but take no actions to curtail them. From my view the system is broken and the only thing our representatives know how to do is spend money. Why not take the lead and eliminate pork and reduce the size of governemnt?

  • Report this Comment On December 15, 2009, at 7:31 PM, MAURIZIO400 wrote:

    warren could you please tell me your next pick before you actually make it?

  • Report this Comment On December 15, 2009, at 7:32 PM, MAURIZIO400 wrote:

    any old ceo question:

    gonna buy shares of the company going forward?

  • Report this Comment On December 15, 2009, at 8:31 PM, wtatm wrote:

    To any Homebuilding CEO...

    Given that almost 4 million homes have foreclosed this year... there are more Alt-a foreclosures coming in 2010... many more homeowners would place their homes on the market if there is any hint of a recovery in real estate prices... and unemployment is at 10%... what is your plan for growth in your industry and why should I invest in your company?

  • Report this Comment On December 15, 2009, at 8:33 PM, xetn wrote:

    What is the one thing you personally did to earn your salary and keep your job?

  • Report this Comment On December 15, 2009, at 8:36 PM, asmith111 wrote:

    To any CEO.

    At what price would you personally start buying shares in your company? Not exercising options, but buying stock with their own money.

    Andrew Smith

  • Report this Comment On December 15, 2009, at 9:44 PM, DaytonFlyers wrote:

    Any company- What is your SCA?

    Warren Buffett- Who is your successor, lol? Even though we all know what he will say.

  • Report this Comment On December 15, 2009, at 10:22 PM, TheLudicFallacy wrote:

    Don't worry, with our new government program we can purge you of the capitalist poison that has brought you to this immoral and desperate state. And at last, the burden of making a profit will no longer be your problem.

    -We are from the government, and we are here to help (you out of all your money, your future money, any any of those despicable ambitions that have beleaguered you in the past)

  • Report this Comment On December 15, 2009, at 11:34 PM, Fool wrote:

    Steve Jobs..

    Why no removable battery on Iphone???? Would make it much better for business/Blackbeery uses to switch????

    PS: Is the day of just AT&T for the Iphone run its course..............

  • Report this Comment On December 15, 2009, at 11:58 PM, BFH300a wrote:

    How much did you pay for that haircut????

  • Report this Comment On December 15, 2009, at 11:58 PM, BFH300a wrote:

    How much did you pay for that haircut?????

  • Report this Comment On December 16, 2009, at 1:11 AM, dollarpuppy wrote:

    To the CEO of Coinstar (CSTR):

    Your company made a nice profit on the loose change under America's couch cushions (and bank branches were happy to get rid of their noisy counting machines).

    Next you brought out Redbox, more convenient than Blockbuster, cheaper and even more on-demand than Netflix DVDs by mail.

    We'll probably become "cashless" to the point that we make piggy banks extinct, but it's very possible that demand for physical DVDs (and Blu-Rays) will decrease as more people use inexpensive or free streaming services such as iTunes, Hulu, ad Netflix via PS3, XBox or Roku.

    How does Coinstar plan to stay in the game? Will there always be a steady demand for Redbox rentals? Or does future growth reside in new kiosk concepts that we never realized we couldn't live without?

  • Report this Comment On December 16, 2009, at 1:11 AM, dollarpuppy wrote:

    To the CEO of Coinstar (CSTR):

    Your company made a nice profit on the loose change under America's couch cushions (and bank branches were happy to get rid of their noisy counting machines).

    Next you brought out Redbox, more convenient than Blockbuster, cheaper and even more on-demand than Netflix DVDs by mail.

    We'll probably become "cashless" to the point that we make piggy banks extinct, but it's very possible that demand for physical DVDs (and Blu-Rays) will decrease as more people use inexpensive or free streaming services such as iTunes, Hulu, ad Netflix via PS3, XBox or Roku.

    How does Coinstar plan to stay in the game? Will there always be a steady demand for Redbox rentals? Or does future growth reside in new kiosk concepts that we never realized we couldn't live without?

  • Report this Comment On December 16, 2009, at 1:47 AM, dollarpuppy wrote:

    To Eric Schmidt of Google:

    Not unlike Walmart, people are starting to become fearful of Google because of its size and omnipresence. Does Google think about its image, or just stick to "Don't be evil" and let actions speak for themselves?

  • Report this Comment On December 16, 2009, at 8:56 AM, glenby52 wrote:

    What, if any, plans do you have to keep, create, or bring back jobs to the United States?

  • Report this Comment On December 16, 2009, at 9:11 AM, lehem wrote:

    Will you do a better job if you had a higher salary?

  • Report this Comment On December 16, 2009, at 10:58 AM, Atrocity wrote:

    Energy CEO's:

    If cap and trade passes, will your company move its United States based operations to a location outside of the US?

    Any CEO:

    If healthcare reform is passed, what impact (if any) will this have on your employees?

  • Report this Comment On December 16, 2009, at 11:55 AM, GoingDutch wrote:

    CEO, GE

    Are you willing to step down as CEO if it would improve tthe company stock price.Or, do you think you are the right CEO for GE and will be able to have an influence on significantly increaseing the stock price. Looking for results!

  • Report this Comment On December 16, 2009, at 1:26 PM, chumchingee wrote:

    Do you know how to work the equipment that produces your product and do you in a related part know the people that make your product acceptable?

    For instance an employee with 30 years experience in every aspect of your business would know what to do if something went seriously wrong. A newbie would not have a clue.

    If you know the equipment, you will know when and if to replace it with newer equipment to remain competitive.

    The biggest trap today is the swinging ax of currency exchange. When the dollar goes down, all of the foreign industry will likely be nationalized by the countries you are currently using slave labor from. I know this is another question. Does your experience allow for setting up locally again to make you competitive when the dollar falls?

  • Report this Comment On December 16, 2009, at 4:20 PM, 1232152314235 wrote:

    Do you love the company you work for ?

  • Report this Comment On December 16, 2009, at 4:23 PM, 1232152314235 wrote:

    Do you love the company you work for ?

  • Report this Comment On December 16, 2009, at 5:34 PM, sweettea2u wrote:

    Can I look at your financial records?

  • Report this Comment On December 16, 2009, at 9:17 PM, Fool wrote:

    I thought you got paid millions to look ahead and anticipate bubbles. Not claim "weak demand" during bad years and good management in good years. Am I wrong in my assumptions?

    DS

  • Report this Comment On December 16, 2009, at 10:03 PM, jerryguru69 wrote:

    Vikram Pandit (Citigroup)

    Are you nuts??

  • Report this Comment On December 16, 2009, at 10:57 PM, asmith111 wrote:

    To any CEO,

    What price would you buy your own stock with your own money?

  • Report this Comment On December 17, 2009, at 1:05 AM, jazgr8 wrote:

    If you could choose either, which President would you rather have running the country, Barack Obama or Ronald Reagan?

  • Report this Comment On December 17, 2009, at 4:09 PM, Insomniac21772 wrote:

    On the Monday morning following the collapse of the Lehman Brothers and partially finalized deal between Ken Lewis's Bank of America and John Thain's Merrill Lynch, the markets crashed and credit lending began to freeze up. Our economy was facing armageddon if something wasn't done quickly. This is when U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson decided to create TARP to "forcefully" lend money to many American financial institutions in order to "push" them into lending once again.

    My question for an CEO is....

    What would you have done during the 'credit market meltdown' if you were Henry Paulson. and why?

  • Report this Comment On December 18, 2009, at 2:55 PM, TMFGilla wrote:

    What is the source of your (genuine - not what you want me to hear) competitive advantage, what have you done in the last 3 years to grow it, and what are your plans for the next 5 years to protect and grow it further?

    In all of these questions, it's not the question that's asked, but the type of answer you get that's really illuminative. I want a CEO who is passionate, humble, honest and focussed on the long term.

  • Report this Comment On December 18, 2009, at 3:34 PM, lquadland10 wrote:

    Would you sign my petition to END THE IMF aka THE FED?

  • Report this Comment On December 18, 2009, at 7:25 PM, NewClueLess wrote:

    Want to buy me a Ferrari?

  • Report this Comment On December 22, 2009, at 11:20 AM, cdostrom wrote:

    What are you going to do to ensure the american way of life in the future?

  • Report this Comment On December 22, 2009, at 12:22 PM, cogitate4u wrote:

    Question is for Shantanu Narayen, CEO of Adobe Systems:

    With Adobe's recent acquisition of Omniture Hitbox, how does that fit into the core landscape of Adobe's product and service offerings, and moving forward, what does (or how does) Adobe expect to capitalize on such a venture while preserving relationships with existing enterprise customers who may or may not be direct competitors.

  • Report this Comment On December 22, 2009, at 10:49 PM, brunobb wrote:

    By my SEO and Social Media Marketing expertise, I would like to ask you as a CEO the following question:

    Are you aware of the unlimited profit making and competitive edge gaining potential of implementing the right Social Media Marketing and Optimization strategies based on the right integration of your website(s) with the right social media sites reinforced with your fresh website's content submission to articles, blogs, ezines, press releases, video and bookmarking sites all resulting in your website's positioning on top organic search engine rankings?

    Bruno Babic - SEODesignOnline

    Skype ID: bruno.bb100

  • Report this Comment On December 23, 2009, at 6:46 PM, becdon wrote:

    what is personal bet extent that ek will win against your competitors in the long term.

  • Report this Comment On December 23, 2009, at 6:47 PM, becdon wrote:

    what the extent of your personal bet thet you will win over your competitor.?

  • Report this Comment On December 23, 2009, at 6:49 PM, becdon wrote:

    what is the extent of your personal bet that you can win against your competitors for the long term?

  • Report this Comment On November 04, 2010, at 7:19 PM, mcl701 wrote:

    how does someone without a highschool deploma or a ged get hired on at walmart?

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