Guest Post by Sanyin Siang

In a world where we always expect our leaders to have the answers, what role do questions play in leading effectively?

In my work at Duke, I’ve had the opportunity to engage with leaders across different industries and sectors from heads of Fortune 100 companies, to government officials, to entrepreneurial visionaries. One thing I’ve observed time and again is that the most effective leaders don’t worry about having all of the answers themselves. Instead, they are masters of asking great questions.

Effective leaders recognize that in today’s rapidly shifting marketplace, issues are complicated and complex. It’s nearly impossible for any one person to have all of the data, knowledge, and experience needed to generate the best strategies and solutions.

So, they surround themselves with those who have knowledge, expertise, or points of views that they don’t possess. They understand that the leadership role is less about being a subject matter expert and more about the ability to surface key information that shapes decision-making.

In this context, effective leaders use questions to:

1. Establish credibility and convey who they are.

Effective leaders are fearless about asking questions because a well-framed question can highlight the understanding of an issue, and communicate the questioner’s point of view. Think about great interviewers such as Barbara Walters, Larry King, or Oprah Winfrey, and how their questions convey both their areas of expertise, as well as their values.

As Ellen Kullman, Chairman and CEO of Dupont, who also sees her role as the ‘chief people recruiter,’ had shared with me: You can tell more from a person by the questions that they ask than the answer that they give.

2. Drive to the heart of an issue.

They ask questions that filter the critical information from the noise, and that help connect the dots. They take a step back and ask, Why is this the case? How does this affect us? What are we assuming? What do we need to know that we don’t yet know? What other questions do we need to be asking right now?

3. Get people to focus on the potential for positive change, rather than on a negative reality.

This is especially needed today when uncertainty and bad news plague even the best of organizations. Madison Avenue legend Keith Reinhard, retired Chairman and CEO of DDB Worldwide, once recounted the story of what happened when DDB lost the American Airlines (AA) account. The news dealt a major blow to employee morale.

So on that day, Keith asked, If you were to write the headline for the DDB and the AA relationship five years from now, what would that headline be? By asking a question that ignited his employees’ imagination, he also rekindled a sense of optimism. In the end, his team came up with ideas that enabled them to win back the AA account.

4. Encourage collaboration.

Well-constructed questions can resolve the tension of seemingly opposing viewpoints, as well as get people excited about working together. While there is no template, an approach I use is to first steer the conversation away from the zero-sum mindset that opposing parties typically hold and find ways to connect the valid aspects from each. Then, try to unearth the motivations behind each viewpoint. The resulting information can lead to questions that focus them on an integrative (different from a compromising), and potential third and more effective option.

5. Foster a stronger sense of personal ownership and accountability.

Questions, as opposed to declarations, create a different power dynamic between the questioner and the respondent. Posing a question can elevate the sense of power of the respondent without diminishing the power of the questioner.

For example, Mellody Hobson, Chairman of the Boards of DreamWorks Animation SKG and Ariel Mutual Funds, and Director of Starbucks, told me the story of how she had used questions as a way of providing tough feedback.

A few years ago, an employee was under-performing less and making mistakes. Mellody showed the data to the employee and asked: Based on this data, what would you think, or do, if you were in my shoes? Not only did the employee come to the same conclusion as she had, but by framing the feedback as a question, Mellody instilled in the employee a greater sense of accountability for how to improve the situation.

6. Develop leadership talent in others.

Questions have the power to prompt reflection on the part of the respondent. In my role as an executive leadership coach, I find that being prescriptive often isn’t as useful as helping a person connect the dots, and realize that they already know the right answer.

In wrestling with some tough situations, simply starting with questions such what makes this challenging and what would you like to see happen can begin to help the coachee probe more deeply . In the process, they gain a greater awareness of self and the issues. As they begin to recognize and grow more confident in their personal capabilities, they also begin to unleash their true leadership potential.

So, next time you find yourself in a conversation or meeting, resist the urge to jump in and give answers. Rather, step back, listen and see if there are questions that might help everyone understand more deeply, spark their imaginations, drive collaboration, deepen a greater sense of ownership, and better convey who you are and what you stand for to others.

And then, ask.

Sanyin SiangSanyin Siang is the Executive Director of the Fuqua/Coach K Center on Leadership & Ethics at Duke University, an executive coach, and speaker. You can follow her posts on LinkedIn 



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