September 2011

Last month I wrote about the important distinction between leading and managing, August-2011-newsletter and specifically leading in ways that empower people to take ownership and accountability of their work. This month, I’ll build on these concepts by offering an important way to lead effectively, by asking the right questions.

Are you Leading by Asking (good) Questions?

Leaders and managers are constantly faced with problems, issues and questions from employees wanting and usually waiting for answers in order to move forward with tasks and goals. The natural inclination as a leader is to quickly answer those questions, and solve those problems since that’s what leaders do. But is it really quicker, and is it the right thing to do?

So many of my clients intuitively know it’s best to ask employees to develop the solutions, but are caught between wanting to move quickly, and making sure the employees are doing things the way the leader wants. So what’s the problem in all this? And where’s the advantage for you, as leaders, in asking good questions?

The obvious benefits of asking good questions are the potentially fresh and powerful ideas that you’ll learn from your employees plus the development that will occur as your employees think and solve problems in new ways. It’s that old story about feeding a man fish for dinner versus teaching him to fish to eat for a lifetime. Clearly the time it takes to go through the process of solving a problem through employee input and discussion is well worth the effort the next time a similar situation occurs. The employee will be learning to discover their own solutions and move more quickly in the future with less assistance.

Another, perhaps more critical benefit of asking good questions, is to learn more about underlying issues that may be preventing the achievement of successful results. I encourage my clients to raise issues in staff meetings through questions, to allow for discussion of items not necessarily on the meeting agenda. Open up the discussion by asking how things are going, and what’s challenging overall. Many times just that one question opens the group to discuss the real and potentially invisible or underlying issues that are preventing the desired results. I also caution my clients that the most critical part of this exercise is NOT to provide the answers in that meeting – especially answers from the leader. Let the team think about their discussion and come to the next meeting with possible solutions or first steps.

To illustrate, I’ll share an example from one of my current clients. This leader has developed a good habit of asking employees questions when they come to him looking for answers. But once he has asks the question – “what would you suggest?” He follows up with “if it were me, I would do ______”. Hmmm… Not an effective use of good questions. It’s easy to see how that comment will land, and what that employee will do. It’s easy to ask the questions, more critical to know what to do with the employees’ answers and then where to take the discussion so that the next questions are guiding the real opportunities.

And finally, leading by asking good questions models a behavior for your employees that lets them know it’s ok to ask questions, and to explore solutions in a variety of ways. It demonstrates trust, support and an open discussion environment – all necessary for a team to function most effectively.

So how can those of you in leadership positions make sure you are asking good questions? Here’s a few to help you get started.

Good questions to ask:

  • How can we be more proactive to prevent ___________ from occurring again?
  • How can we streamline or simplify _______?
  • How can we work together more effectively?
  • How can we apply what we’re learning to other areas of our work?
  • What are the consequences of doing _______ this way?
  • Why did _____ work so well?
  • How can we ask better questions?
  • What is our most important take away from this meeting?
  • I don’t know…. What do you think?
  • How would you like to proceed?
  • What would you recommend to make it work?
  • What would you do if you were in my position?
  • Have you considered getting ideas from (person or teams)?
  • What else?

The leader of the past was a person who knew how to tell. The leader of the future will be a person who knows how to ask. – Peter Drucker

Struggling with personal or business change?

If you’re looking to make a change in your life or business and are feeling overwhelmed or don’t know how to proceed to get the results you’re looking to achieve, I’d love to talk with you. I help leaders to successfully navigate the challenges of making change to achieve the results they want. Visit my website for details, free resources and to schedule a complimentary consultation to discuss your needs.

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