A Cup of Leadership CaffeineThe art of asking questions is a leadership power tool.

A good question from a leader is like a pebble thrown into a pond. While the splash occurs at the impact point, the question encourages people to think experiment and even innovate, long after the initial asking.

The best leaders wield their questions like a concert musician wields his or her instrument, adjusting and adapting the tone and tenor and pace depending upon circumstances.

Jack Welch, the former Chairman and CEO of G.E. was famous for his view on this topic, although in true Welch fashion, there was a bit of a bit to his view on questions:

“Leaders probe and push with a curiosity that borders on skepticism, making sure questions are answered with action.”

I like everything about his view here, except the point on skepticism. Jack and I will have to agree to disagree on that one.

How’s Your Questions to Comments Ratio?

Long-time readers know that I advocate monitoring your Questions to Comments ratio as a personal key performance indicator. The further north you are of a 1:1 ratio with good quality questions, the more effective you are at delivering on some key leadership objectives.

5 Reasons Why You Want to Lead With Great Questions:

  1. You are creating a learning atmosphere
  2. Your questions show your team members how much you respect their insights
  3. You are encouraging people to think independently
  4. You are teaching others how important it is to question assumptions about projects, strategies, competitors and market forces. All of these areas and the dominant logic behind them demand constant reconsideration.
  5. You are promoting an effective communications culture where the tough issues are free to be examined and ideas suggested.

Your goal with your questions as Mr. Welch highlights is to encourage action. You want experiments, improvement initiatives and innovation efforts to be the by-products of your probing, not a series of never-ending debates.

Developing your skill with questions takes deliberate practice and some healthy self-awareness to acknowledge that asking might just be more effective than telling.

Some leaders mistakenly assume that they are in charge because they are smart. The most effective leaders recognize that they are in charge because they know how to tap into the talents of people that are smarter than they are.  Questions are the tool for tapping into that talent.

11 Questions to Help Jump-Start Your Team’s Curiosity

1. Why are we winning? (What’s working and how do we do more of it?)

2. Why are we losing? (What’s not working and what can we fix or stop?)

3. Why are our competitors winning? (How well do we understand their strategies?)

4. What are the customers saying?

5. What do the customers really mean? (How well are we interpreting their Voice?)

6. Are we doing the right things? (Do our priorities tie closely with our strategy?)

7. What are the assumptions about the world (markets, industries, our capabilities) that underlie our strategy and are they valid?

8. What resources do you need from me to help you and your colleagues execute on priorities?

9. How are you measuring progress? Why?

10. What are our major risks and our plans to identify and deal with them?

11. What have we learned and how are we translating the lessons learned into improvements?

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Learn to wield questions to both gain insights and stimulate your team’s thinking. The best dividend of a consistent approach to asking a lot of the right questions, is that you teach those around you to both ask and think about the right issues.  Additionally, in this fast moving world, yesterday’s assumptions and strategies are easily turned into tomorrow’s business road-kill unless you and your team members stay alert. Now, are there any questions?