Ask, Don’t Tell – Part Two

Excerpted with permission from Mark Miller‘s book “Smart Leadership – Four Simple Choices to Scale Your Impact”

Note from Bob:  Mark’s Chapter, “Ask, Don’t Tell” is pure GOLD – filled with incredible wisdom on Leading With Questions!  Click HERE for Part One: “Why Questions Matter”.  Part Two “Putting Your Questions to Work” is below:   Click HERE for Part Three: “Ask Better Questions”.


As far as I know, there is no universally accepted list of the various types of questions. A quick Google search reveals dozens of such lists. Therefore, I’ve taken the liberty to create one more. This list is not as important as the idea it underscores—you can use questions in countless ways. A well-crafted and thoughtful question can be just what you need in many situations. Questions are a leader’s Swiss Army knife; there’s a blade for almost everything. Here’s my shot at several different applications when a good question may be just what you need.


If you have been asked to do a presentation, there are some questions that can help you prepare and increase your odds of success.

•​ Who is in the audience?

•​ What is the theme of the event?

•​ Who will speak before me?

•​ Who will speak after me?

•​ What is the objective of my presentation?

•​ What does the audience already know about the topic?

•​ What do they know about me?

•​ Who will introduce me?

•​ What type of media/technology support will be available?

• ​How will the room be arranged?

•​ How would I explain the premise of my talk to a small child?

•​ What do I want the audience to know, feel, and do after the presentation?

•​ What props, visuals, or activities would reinforce my key point and raise audience engagement?

•​ What would need to happen for the person who invited me to feel like my presentation was a success?

• ​How could you convey this information without saying a word?

•​ How could this message be communicated visually?


A good working definition of strategy is your chosen path to a predetermined goal. With this as our starting point, here are some questions that may help you build a credible plan.

•​ What do we want to be true in a decade that is not true today?

•​ What is our current competitive advantage? How can we sustain it? How can we enhance it?

•​ What are our strengths? How can we leverage them?

•​ What are the most pressing threats we will face as a team/organization over the next twelve months? Thirty-six months? Sixty months?

•​ What do we think our competitors are working on? Why would we care?

•​ What is our time horizon for this planning cycle?

•​ What are our three to five overarching goals for the next year? Five years?

•​ Who will serve as our champion for each goal?

•​ What are our key strategies for each goal/objective?

•​ What tactics will be required to bring the strategies to life?

•​ How will we generate buy-in for the plan?

•​ How will we communicate the plan across the team/organization?

•​ Who is accountable for plan communications?

•​ How well have we executed our current plan?

•​ What will we need to do to execute at a higher level on future plans?

•​ What does our plan scorecard look like?

•​ When will we review the plan for progress?

•​ How will we celebrate our success?


The right questions can help with both defining and solving a problem. The next time you or your team is about to begin tackling a problem, try some of these questions.

•​ What is the presenting problem? By the way, the presenting problem is rarely the real problem.

•​ What does the data reveal about this problem?

•​ What is the most expansive way to state the problem?

•​ What is the narrowest, most pinpointed way we can express the problem?

•​ What are potential root causes of this problem?

•​ Which of these potential causes is most likely the primary cause?

•​ What do the people closest to the problem say about it?

• ​What has already been tried, if anything, to solve this problem?

•​ How have others successfully solved this problem?

• If we hired an outside consulting firm to solve this, what do we think they would do?

•​ What metrics will we use to determine the effectiveness of our intervention(s)?

• Who is responsible for implementing our recommended action plan?


This is a broad category of open-ended questions to aid in exploration. You can use them in numerous situations. Try some of these the next time you are planning your vacation, looking for a book to read, or shopping for Christmas gifts.

•​ What are the options?

•​ What are the possibilities?

•​ What are the boundaries?

•​ What are the nonnegotiables?

•​ What are my preferences?

•​ What are the preferences of others?

•​ What has worked in the past? ​

•​ What has failed in the past? Why?

•​ If time and money were not an issue, what would the right answer be?

•​ Why are we doing what we are doing?]

•​ What happens if we do nothing?

•​ How would the situation change if we only had twelve hours to prepare?

• ​How would the situation change if we had twelve months to prepare?

• ​If we crowdsourced this issue, what would the general population suggest?

•​ Can we crowdsource this?

•​ What else, if anything, have we ever addressed that was similar? What worked in that situation and what did not? Why and why not?

Stimulating (Creativity) Questions

There is a long tradition of using questions in the midst of creative sessions to free our minds and stimulate ideas. I’m sure hundreds of thousands of questions have been used for this same purpose. Here are some for your reference.

•​ What would the opposite indicate?

•​ What happens if we make it smaller?

•​ What happens if we make it bigger?

•​ How would the most creative person solve this?

•​ How can we break the problem, and potentially the solution, down into its elemental parts?

•​ How would you approach this situation if you had an unlimited budget?

• ​How would you approach this situation if you had no budget?

Often these stimulating questions can border on the bizarre. When they do, you may think they will never add any value. Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t. One fun example is from a session I facilitated when we were discussing how to successfully onboard a new person. The question was “How would you do this underwater?” You can’t get much crazier than that.

The conversation that followed included: You don’t go scuba diving without a buddy—let’s be sure every new person has a buddy. You don’t go scuba diving without a predive checklist—let’s prepare an onboarding checklist of things that need to happen before the first dive (day). Before we were finished, there were several good ideas sparked by our crazy question.

If you are up for an unorthodox brainstorming session, try some of these stimulating questions.

•​ How would we solve this on the moon?

•​ How would this problem have been addressed two hundred years ago?

•​ How might this problem be solved two hundred years from now?

•​ If we assume the role of an inanimate object connected to the problem, what solution would we recommend?

•​ How would a child solve this problem?

Interview Questions

To quote Peter Drucker again, “The most important decision a leader makes is who does what.” If you believe this, and even if you debate his conclusion regarding “most important,” the interview becomes a pivotal moment in your career as much as the candidate’s. Even with the advent of more project-based interviewing, group interviewing, and simulations in the interview process, at the end of the day, we still need to have hardworking questions for the candidate. Here are some favorites from famous people.1 I’ll close this section with one of my own.

• ​“What didn’t you get a chance to include on your résumé?” Richard Branson, CEO, The Virgin Group

• ​“On a scale of one to ten, how weird are you?” Tony Hsieh, founder and former CEO, Zappos

•​ “How would you describe yourself in one word?” Dara Richardson-Heron, CEO of YWCA

•​ “What would someone who doesn’t like you say about you?” retired general Stanley McChrystal

• ​“What did you do to prepare for this interview?” Suzy Welch, author and speaker

•​ “Why would you want to work for . . . you?” Jack Welch, former CEO, General Electric

• ​“What do you want to be when you grow up?” Stewart Butterfield, founder, Flickr and Slack

• ​“What’s your dream job?” Jeff Weiner, CEO, LinkedIn

• ​“Why are you here?” Jack Dorsey, CEO, Twitter

•​ “So, what’s your story?” Brian Chesky, CEO, Airbnb

Now, it’s my turn. I wanted to include a small break to avoid putting my question alongside Jack Welch, Richard Branson, and the like. One of my favorite interview questions is:

What questions do you have for me?

I believe you can learn so much about someone based on their questions. If they don’t have any or they are clearly practicing their improve skills in their response, I probably don’t have any more questions for them.

Note from Bob:  Spending time with Mark is always a treat!  Reading Mark’s new book “Smart Leadership – Four Simple Choices to Scale Your Impact!” will be a way for you to spend a couple of hours learning from him.  You will want to order your “Smart Leadership” book now by clicking HERE

I am predicting that even before you finish reading “Smart Leadership” you will be wanting to purchase additional books to share with your staff, colleagues and many others in the shadow of your influence!

Mark Miller


Mark Miller is a business leader, best-selling author, and a communicator. He is currently serving as the Vice President of High Performance Leadership for Chick-fil-A, Inc. Beyond chicken, Mark’s global influence continues to grow. Today, there are over a million copies of his books in print, in twenty-five languages. Smart Leadership is his tenth title.



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