Special Note from Bob: In 2006 I was browsing in a (now closed) Borders Bookstore and came across the first edition of “Leading With Questions” by Michael Marquardt. I only had to peruse a few pages before declaring to myself, “This is a Keeper!” This book changed forever how I lead! After I started my blog I had the privilege of interacting with Mike and he graciously agreed to do several guest posts and gave me his “cart-blanch” permission to excerpt from his book. Today is the release date for the revised and updated “Leading with Questions.” In his new edition Mike makes a significant mention of my blog and encourages his readers to subscribe! WOW! What a huge honor! Mike – Thank You Very Much! I am blessed to be able to call you my friend!
Asking rather than telling, questions rather than answers—this has become the key to leadership excellence and success in the twenty-first century. Peter Drucker, considered the leadership guru of the twentieth century, noted that the leader of the past may have been a person who knew how to tell, but certainly the leader of the future will be a person who knows how to ask. With the growing complexity and speed of change in the world, the traditional hierarchical model of leadership that worked yesterday will not work tomorrow. The leader simply won’t know enough to adequately tell people what to do; the world is changing too rapidly. No one person can master all the data needed to address the complex issues that confront today’s organizations.
Michael Dell, founder and leader of the computer company that bears his name, is a strong believer in the power of questions. “Asking lots of questions opens new doors to new ideas, which ultimately contributes to your competitive edge,” he says. Dell is also a big believer in learning from everyone in the company. He does this systematically by polling people around the company. “We also learn a lot by asking the same question in similar groups across the company and comparing the results…. If one team is having great success with medium sized companies, we cross-pollinate their ideas …throughout the organization.”
Leaders need to create a questioning climate in which employees feel safe and able to trust the system and the people involved. Without this level of safety and comfort, people are generally unwilling to be vulnerable and to be comfortable answering questions that may seem threatening. And without trust and openness, people are unwilling to communicate about feelings and about problems, and thus ask the leader questions that might help them.
Marshall Goldsmith, recognized as one of the top leadership coaches, regularly teaches leaders to ask questions. In “Ask, Learn, Follow Up, and Grow,” he writes, “The effective leader of the future will consistently ask—to receive advice and to solicit new ideas. Tomorrow’s leader will ask a variety of key stakeholders for ideas, opinions, and suggestions. Vital sources of information will include present and potential customers, suppliers, team members, cross divisional peers, direct reports, managers, other members of the organization, researchers, and thought leaders. The leader will ask in a variety of ways: through leadership inventories, satisfaction surveys, phone calls, voice mail, e-mail, the Internet, satellite hookups, and in-person dialogue.”
Aside from the obvious benefit of gaining new ideas and insights, Goldsmith adds, “Asking by top leaders has a secondary benefit that may be even more important. The leader who asks is providing a role model. Sincere asking demonstrates a willingness to learn, a desire to serve, and a humility that can be an inspiration for the entire organization.”
Contrary to much received wisdom, effective leaders do not have all the answers; rather, effective leaders make it a practice to ask questions. One of the best things you can do to strengthen your leadership is to ask questions. Another is to encourage others to ask questions. When we learn to ask questions and do so effectively, our questions can transform individuals, groups, and organizations.
1. How can I use questions to be a more effective leader?
2. What problems have I created because I did not ask questions?
3. What are some of the great questions I have asked others?
4. What great questions have I been asked in my lifetime?
5. Am I able to say “I don’t know”?
6. Of whom do I ask questions and why?
7. What questions can I ask to help the people around me to learn?
8. How can questions build a learning culture in my organization?
9. Have I encouraged others around me to ask questions?
10. How can I improve my skills in asking questions?
Michael J. Marquardt is the President, World Institute for Action Learning and a Professor at George Washington University. Mike is the author of 20 books and over 100 professional articles in the fields of leadership, learning, globalization and organizational change including Action Learning for Developing Leaders and Organizations and Leading with Questions. www.wial.org
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