A Question of Leadership
By Tom Laughlin
Every leader has a story that begins
with, “I told them to…” and ends with disaster. Misunderstandings,
bad assumptions and general lack of communication contribute to more
lost opportunities and wasted resources than any other leadership
challenge. Let’s look at how provocative questions and profound
listening can lead the way.
I have a client; we’ll call him Jim, who
leads an organization of about 250 people. My feedback interviews
with Jim’s staff revealed a visionary, engaged, enthusiastic leader
who was universally liked and respected. Unfortunately, his style
also contributed to some costly debacles. One time, Jim’s
enthusiasm and encouragement for an event was mistaken by an
administrative assistant as permission to print a flyer with the
wrong date and a collection of spelling errors. Jim assumed someone
would edit the flyer.
When I related the story of the wayward
flyer in our feedback debrief Jim groaned, “I didn’t know he was
going to print it like that! Do I need to check all the details
myself? What do I need to do?" My suggestion: ask more questions!
Why Questions Work: Questions help you
stay in tune with the operational flow. You don’t need to remember
all the details. Just listen and intervene when necessary. Jim
admits that if he had asked, “What are you going to do next?” he
would have surely redirected the administrative assistant to the
event coordinator for approval. He didn’t need to get involved in
the details to have an impact.
Questions are more effective than
direction. How many times has someone followed your instructions to
the letter with poor results? They didn’t give you enough
information about the situation, didn’t completely understand your
instructions or simply didn’t have the ability to implement your
idea. If you ask your staff for ideas they will incorporate all the
information they have, understand how to implement the idea, and
probably have the skills to execute it. They will also feel a sense
of ownership for the outcome.
“In all affairs it's a healthy thing
now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long
taken for granted.” - Bertrand Russell
People become trapped in the
organization’s accumulated knowledge and established procedures. I
know a manager who questioned a policy that cost his department
valuable time and resources. The policy was in place to protect the
company if a vendor became insolvent. In this case, the vendor was
the U.S. Postal Service. The company made an exception.
How to Ask Questions: To ask good
questions you must learn to listen, really listen. Here are some
tips on how to listen effectively:
Wait for a complete answer when you
ask a question. Don’t interrupt.
Be patient. Questions can take
people by surprise so allow some time for an answer to emerge.
Suggest that people get back to you later if you think they need
time to develop an informed answer.
Keep your mind clear. You can’t
listen and think of the next thing that you want to say at the
same time. If necessary, write down your questions and comments
while you listen.
Repeat back what you heard to verify
Ask questions like Colombo. Peter Falk
turned disarming curiosity into a work of art in his portrayal of
the relentless detective. If you ask questions in a curious manner
rather than a demanding one you will put people at ease. Plus,
people will gain clarity over their own thoughts and intentions as
they answer. I was at a presentation to a division president who,
during the lunch break, casually asked what kind of a competitive
response the proposal might provoke. By the end of lunch the
presenters modified their recommendation.
Your best source of questions is
intuition but you’ll need a little practice and some courage to ask
in this manner. Intuitive questions come from your unconscious
mind, your gut, which can process much faster and consider a lot
more information than your conscious mind. You’ll need practice to
turn those “feelings” into questions. In addition, intuitive
questions many times don’t, at first, seem to make any sense. That’s
where the courage comes in.
If you are at a loss for a good question
just ask why…5 times. Here’s an illustration.
Business is bad.
Why? Revenue is down from last year.
Why? Unit sales are down from last
Why? We had an unusually large order
from a customer last year.
Why? The salesman convinced them to
take 3 months worth of inventory.
Why? There was a sales contest for a
trip to Hawaii.
A sales contest looks like a viable
remedy after the second question. It doesn’t look so good after the
fifth. In fact, maybe no remedy is necessary. A thorough
understanding of the situation may be enough.
To ask provocative questions and listen
profoundly takes practice, discipline and patience. Limit yourself
to questions when someone walks in your office and then listen,
really listen. The results might surprise you.
Tom Laughlin is the President of
Caravela Inc, a leadership consulting firm based in Minneapolis
Minnesota. You can find more information about Caravela and Tom
Laughlin at www.caravela.us or
send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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