Excerpted from 78 Important Questions Every Leader Should Ask and Answer by Chris Clarke-Epstein with the permission of the publisher
Captain Jean-Luc Picard looked up from his log, checked the chronometer and decided that he had spent enough time in his ready room for one day. Time to get up and walk about a bit, get the feel of the ship under his feet. A crew had moods and the only way to find out what they are is to go out and tread the deck. Of course, he could just call in either Riker or Troi and put the question to them – How is the crew feeling? – and from their different perspectives form a clear and reliable able picture. Over the years, Picard had learned that this method omitted an essential component. If he stayed in his ready room and waited for subordinates to bring him answers, the crew wouldn’t know how Picard was feeling, at least, how Picard wanted them to think he was feeling.
Jeffrey Lang, Immortal Coil
When Tom Peters wrote “In Search of Excellence” in 1982, he introduced leaders all over the world to the concept of Managing by Wandering Around (MBWA). As a consultant and facilitator for management teams, I’ve discovered how difficult it is for many leaders to get up from behind their desks, or more frequently, to excuse themselves from yet another meeting and place themselves in close proximity to the people they are leading.
One day it dawned on me that getting them in front of their people isn’t even the hardest part. All too often, they don’t know what to say once they get there!
You might have assumed that from the moment you were given the title of leader, you were required to be the source of all wisdom. In other words, you were supposed to be the person answering questions, not asking them. Nothing could be further from the truth. Good leaders are humbled by the realization of all they do not know, and they quickly reach the conclusion that they’d better find some trusted advisers and ask a few questions. Great leaders know that asking questions of a few won’t give them enough data. To succeed, they must make asking questions of anyone and everyone one their top priority. Sometimes they must also answer difficult questions – questions that they don’t know the answer to or that they can’t answer without giving away confidential data or to which they know the answer will be unwelcome.
This behavior takes courage. Courage, because asking questions and admitting they don’t know an answer are not behaviors people expect from leaders. Ask most people to describe a leader, and they’ll use words such as “strong,” “resourceful,” “charismatic,” “decisive,” and “bold.” If “curious,” “inquisitive,” and “questioning” get mentioned at all, they’ll be at the end of the list. Mental models are hard to change, but this is one we must change. If leadership requires right answers all the time, then only few will qualify. If, however, leadership requires challenging questions, we can all aspire to the title of leader. Approaching leadership with a questioning mindset may be easier than changing the embedded belief that a leader must be quick with an answer into the belief that a leader needs to be quick with a question. If the concept of questions has caught your fancy, and if you believe that you need to try something new because your old leadership behaviors just don’t seem to have the same impact, you and I are going to have some long hours and fun together.
You must keep in mind that asking questions isn’t the same as asking the right questions. If you aspire to be a leader in action as well as in title, you need to plan your questioning strategy. You need to know what you are going to ask and how you’re going to ask it. You need to ask yourself a few pre-work questions. The first set of four pre-work questions will help you determine where you need to ask questions:
- What part of my organization knows me best?
- What part of my organization knows me least?
- What parts of my organization remain a mystery to me?
- What part of my organization is most critical to our success?
Then ask yourself how you’re going to start to be a leader who asks questions:
- How will I explain my new behavior to people?
- How will I use the answers I receive?
- How will I deal with answers I don’t want to hear?
- How will I start asking more questions?
With these questions answered, map out your plan. Maybe you’re a question-of-the-week kind of person. Your style could include a general announcement that you are adopting a different approach and would appreciate support and feedback on your efforts. You could just quietly start asking. Use the worksheets at the end of each chapter. They are designed to help you find your own questions to ask and answer. You might want to enlist the aid of a trusted confidant. Let them in on your plans and ask them to listen for comments from your team and give you feedback on peoples’ reactions. Give yourself permission to focus on the doing rather than on perfection as you start. Better the hesitantly asked question than the never asked question.
All this planning aside, please understand that this is more about your leadership journey and why asking questions will be an important part of it than it is about giving you a set of right answers. It is not my intent to prescribe the right time or the right place to ask or answer a question. This is not so much a book about how-how how is external. It is about why. I am challenging you to move, as Peter Block suggests in The Answer to How is Yes, from how and what works to why and what matters.
I believe that you’d rather be a good leader than a poor one and that being a great leader would be even better. This book will help you wherever you are on your journey as a leader-if you are willing ing to take some risks, practice some new skills, and endure the discomfort comfort of change. As you read, make sure you have a pen handy and take lots of notes. Transform the questions into your own words. Use these questions as springboards to create your own list. But, most of all, ask them! You’ll be rewarded by the answers.
Asking questions and absorbing the answers those questions elicit will take time, and time is often in short supply for a leader. Announcing orders is an efficient system that can save a leader time. And those pronouncements are appropriate-in a time of crisis or when basic information needs to be shared quickly. Many leaders fall into the trap of seeing everything as a crisis or an information dump to save themselves precious time. Be honest with yourself. If everything is a crisis in your organization, or if you’re stuck in the fantasy that it’s the leader’s job to tell most of the time, you need to reconsider your leadership strategy.
Convinced? Ready to go forth and ask? One thing to keep in mind: If you haven’t been known as an up-close-and-personal type of leader, or if your culture has a history of strong hierarchies, don’t be surprised if your questions are met with puzzled looks and long silences. The looks and silences are a result of people doing an internal data search, trying to determine why you’re asking, and what the consequences of an honest answer will be. Be prepared to wait and persist. People will almost always answer a question if you give them a pause long enough to do the processing they need to formulate an answer. Persistent questioning behavior will almost always result in an increase of the thoughtfulness, the depth, and the honesty of the answers you receive.
Speaking of answers, be prepared to listen and to get some answers you’re not happy to hear. The truth, while important in the long term, can be painful in the short term. The worst thing you can do when faced with an uncomfortable answer is to get defensive and respond with a list of reasons explaining why something can’t possibly be changed, why the answerer is obviously misinformed, or how this particular issue isn’t your responsibility.
Your job is to listen, really listen, and thank the answerer for their perspective.
Chris Clarke-Epstein, Certified Speaking Professional is a change expert who has spent the last 28 years challenging diverse groups including senior leadership teams, middle management supervisors, and health care professionals to apply new knowledge. Author of and contributor to more than 15 books, Chris teaches and writes in critical areas such as understanding the dynamics of change, delivering effective feedback, dealing with conflict, and building high performance teams. You can connect with Chris @ Change101.com