Excerpted from “What You Really Need to Lead – The Power of Thinking and Acting Like an Owner” with the permission of the author Robert S. Kaplan
(Note from Bob: Don’t miss the intriguing story that Robert Kaplan shares about a CEO he encountered at the Owner/President Management program at Harvard Business School who sought his help.)
The answer to this one may seem obvious: of course you know how to ask a question.
We do it all the time. What’s the big deal with this? In fact, it turns out to be a lot more challenging and complicated than most people think. Many otherwise outstanding people reach a point in their lives where they think they are supposed to have all the answers— they think they’re supposed to know. They’re afraid that if they don’t act as if they know, they’ll appear dumb, or weak, or incapable. If they do ask questions, they may only go through the motions. In other words, they don’t actually listen with an open mind and a motivation to learn. Why? They may think it’s a sign of weakness to change their minds or be unduly swayed by others. They think that they’re now a leader, and a leader (they think) is supposed to have the answers.
Are you open to changing your mind? Can you admit that you were wrong? Do you actively listen and reassess your thinking in response to new facts or persuasive arguments? Your knee-jerk answer may be “of course,” but is that really true? How you address these questions has a lot to do with your mental model of leadership, as well as your own emotional makeup. Maybe you believe that leaders are supposed to know what they think and should tell people what to do. Maybe you believe that changing your mind is a sign of weakness, and you need to be resolute. Maybe you have a hard time admitting that you messed up or that you were just plain wrong. If so, you are likely to underperform to your potential.
William was the founder and CEO of his own company. While attending the Owner/President Management program at Harvard Business School, he came to see me. He explained that he was concerned that he “wasn’t a good leader.” Years earlier, he had started his company with a software application that was enormously useful to the firm’s customers, most of whom were industrial product manufacturers. Along with a partner, he had developed and then launched the product. After several years, company sales exceeded $ 25 million, and pretax margins averaged 20 percent. William owned the majority of the equity in the company, and the future was looking bright.
“Sounds great,” I said in response to this summary. “So what’s the issue?”
“I honestly thought that we had arrived,” he responded, “but now I am starting to get worried that our market position is eroding. We are starting to lose business to our archrival competitors. My senior executives follow orders, but they don’t seem to care the same way that I do about the future of the company. We need to either be more innovative or market the product better. I really don’t know what the issue is. It worries me that we are dealing with these types of issues at this point in our development. Can you help me figure out what’s wrong?”
I asked, “What do your senior leaders think?” He said, “They don’t seem to know. They want to know what I think, and then want me to tell them what I expect them to do. I am killing myself seeing customers, studying competitors, and thinking about our product. I can’t work any harder! I am starting to think that either I have the wrong team or I am managing my team in the wrong way.”
He asked if I would talk to his partner, Jim, who was attending the same program. The meeting was set up, and— when the time came— Jim arrived at my office. He didn’t hesitate in unloading his frustrations. “William thinks he knows everything,” Jim said, with annoyance. “He asks questions, but then interrupts and never allows people to finish. He jumps down our throats, to the point that everyone just wants to figure out what William wants and then figure out how to do it. People have shut down and are afraid to speak up. When they do, he interrogates them and makes them feel stupid.” Jim explained that he had articulated his observations to William and encouraged me to raise these issues with him.
At our next meeting, I asked William about Jim’s criticisms. He explained to me that this was his company, primarily, and that he never stopped feeling the weight of the world on his shoulders. “I’d rather fail doing what I believe than fail following someone else’s plan,” he explained. “No one cares about this company as much as I do. Maybe I don’t trust people as much as I should. But my view of leadership is that I need to lead— and that means being strong and pointing the way. Sure, I need to ask questions, but ultimately everyone is looking to me to tell them what to do. I’ve always run the company this way— and it has worked! Why should I change now?”
I encouraged William to step back and reassess his leadership style. Just because it used to work, I said, doesn’t mean it works now. I suggested he take his leadership team off-site when he returned home. “I want you to talk to Jim and agree on a framing of the three or four big issues that face the company,” I said. “In the meeting with your team, I want you to lay out each of these questions with the group and then listen to the debate. Your job is to shut up and actively listen. Do not interrupt. Use someone else as the facilitator if you need to. Again: your task should be to frame the questions and then listen— no declarative statements!”
William expressed concern that this approach might “freak people out,” as he put it. “They are accustomed to me leading!”
I explained to him that my suggested approach was “leading.” I further explained that there was a time to inquire and a time to advocate, and he needed to learn the difference so that he could train his people to weigh in. After all, they knew as much as he did— and in some cases, probably more— about the intricacies of the business. Moreover, he had to accept that he was unlikely to solve this problem all by himself. He had to find a way to mobilize his team.
William agreed to hold the off-site session. Afterward, he reported that he was amazed how well the meeting had gone: “We came up with a great diagnosis and then three or four concrete actions to address the situation. My people really rose to the occasion. I have to say, I’m shocked at how well this worked.”
Separately, Jim told me how pleased he was with the meeting. “So what kind of spell did you put on William?” he asked jokingly. “This was the most effective I’ve ever seen him as a leader!”
Of course, there was no “spell”; William had simply decided to make a dramatic change in his leadership style. This change, ironically, took a lot of pressure off him and put more on his team. William had to overcome his own concept of leadership, which presumed that asking a question and listening wasn’t exercising leadership. He had to learn that one of the roles of a leader is to ask the right questions and then empower his group to step up, debate, and resolve issues.
There is an enormous power asymmetry between the boss and his or her subordinates. The boss has to set the tone for interactions with his team with this imbalance in mind. As a leader, William had to create an environment in which his team members felt empowered to act like owners. To accomplish this, he had to learn to ask a question and then listen. Like many entrepreneurs, William needed to learn to adjust his leadership style. For many leaders, there comes a stage in their career when they have to make the shift from “doing everything themselves” to empowering others and working through others to achieve greater success.
If you are not good at asking questions and listening, you are probably not learning as much as you may think. Worse, you may be sending out a vibe that you don’t want to learn. When this happens, your ability to assess situations and adapt your behavior can quickly erode.
In many ways, openness to learning is a stages-of-life challenge. When we are students or just starting out in our careers, we are in the mode of asking questions and being open to learning. We are emotionally attuned to playing the student— that is, being a sponge for knowledge. We’re not expected to be experts yet. We may not be proactive in getting feedback, but we’re usually willing to ask questions and seek advice. This is a mode that comes naturally with getting started in one’s life and career.
Of course, even at this stage of life, there are always some people who are guarded and hesitant to reach out. For the most part, though, I have found that young people are normally at their natural peak in terms of proactively seeking to learn. Because they are young, they don’t feel awkward about asking a “dumb” question, admitting that they don’t know something, and endeavoring to learn. Being a student— or having just recently been a student— makes all of this much easier.
Eventually, a person moves from being a promising young professional to being more advanced in whatever he or she is doing. At some point in a person’s life and career, his or her openness to learning can begin to erode, even though he or she is not conscious of this change at all. If you don’t make a conscious effort to actively stay in the learning mode, you slowly begin to get out of the habit. Why? As I explained earlier, you get promoted to a job in which you have subordinates and you start to think that, by now, you’re supposed to have answers. You become afraid of making yourself look stupid by asking a question that you’re probably supposed to know how to answer. Also, the stakes have probably gotten higher, at least in your own mind. In other words, how you appear to others begins to matter more to you.
By this time in your career, you are probably taking on more senior leadership roles, perhaps even joining the board of directors of a for-profit or nonprofit organization. As you do this, unless you improve your abilities to ask questions and learn more proactively, you can find yourself becoming more detached and out of the loop. Typically, you may not even be aware that you are not learning, and instead, you are just trying to fit in.
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