In my role as a business advisor, one of the attributes I often see in a good leader is the ability and willingness to ask good questions, before moving forward or issuing edicts, potentially in the wrong direction. We all have mental barriers – those unquestioned assumptions, unexplored options, or unchallenged rules of thumb that keep us stuck at a lower level of effectiveness.
Thus, an essential skill for anyone who wants to push the limits of their team and their business is the ability to ask questions that expose and remove those mental obstacles. The challenge is to frame questions that can provoke people into thinking about the problems in a new way, and to ask these questions in a style that doesn’t elicit defensiveness, resistance, or fear.
I saw this challenge outlined well in a new book, “Learning to Lead,” by Ron Williams, former CEO of Aetna and self-made business leader, who rose from the poor side of the tracks in south Chicago to lead several large businesses, and ultimately serve on the President’s Management Advisory Board for several years. His life proves that leadership is learned, not a birthright.
I like his summary of five kinds of questions that can help you change your leadership effectiveness, and your organization’s view of reality when faced with complex new issues:
- Questions that highlight key roadblocks to a solution. Before any assumptions are made on a seemingly impossible challenge, you need to focus the conversation on existing barriers to achieving the desired goal, what methods have already been tried to alleviate the problem, and what specifically happened that caused those efforts to fail.
For example, I too often see entrepreneurs with great determination failing to get investor funding to start a capital-intensive business, such as building a new automated factory. Others face the roadblock with questions like, “Who has such a facility that might partner with us?” and find a win-win solution through a joint venture to achieve their dream.
- Questions that clarify the uncertainty over facts. When there is significant confusion over the nature of the problem, or disagreement as to the cause-and-effect processes that are creating current difficulties, you need to ask questions that probe the reliability and sources for the information. Also, opinions are sometimes over-stated as facts.
If someone on your team is adamant that lack of a complex technical feature is the biggest competitive threat to your business, you may need to ask for specific data from customers and competitors that supports this conclusion. Engineers love to tackle new technology, and sales people are always looking for one more feature to close business.
- Questions that probe the evolution of a complex problem. Asking questions designed to elicit explanatory narratives can illuminate how a particularly difficult challenge came to be, which can be crucial to understanding it’s cultural, social, organizational, and psychological roots. There’s an enlightening story behind every issue.
I have been involved in trying to fix several perennially problematic internal processes, where understanding the history made it obvious that we needed to get the original creator involved, or needed to start over to structure some code that was never intended to be more than a prototype.
- Questions that suggest alternatives can be quite powerful. When your team members’ thinking seems to have gotten stuck in a rut, you need to ask questions that raise alternative possibilities. Perhaps they need to be challenged to investigate how other companies have used different approaches to avoid or resolve similar issues.
For example, every business these days struggles with keeping customer data secure in their database, when potentially that data might be available from another source, kept in cookies on the customer system, or not really be needed at all to do the job.
- Questions that drill down to what business we are in. Sometimes problems make it seem like your business may be fundamentally lost. At this point you need questions designed to raise basic issues, relating to business goals, or who is the target audience. Perhaps the problem can be easily resolved by not trying to solve everyone’s problem.
As a leader, taking a big step back to gain a fresh perspective will shed a powerful light on what you should be doing every day, and asking the right questions is a good way to start the process. Just be sure to wield them carefully so they remain useful tools rather than seeming like aggressive weapons. Today’s workforce, and customers, are looking for leaders, not tyrants.