Lead by Asking Questions

May 9, 2018 | Roger and Susie Engelau

As the owner of the business, do you find a lot of people coming to you for the answers? It can be overwhelming!  Instead of giving answers.  Lead by asking questions.

Too many people in leadership roles think leadership is about telling people to do things.

Lead by asking questions
It’s really about asking people the right questions.

Always telling and giving directions fosters an over-dependence on the leader. It causes you to be overworked. It disconnects the leader from focusing on what’s important. It’s an adhoc approach to the latest issue. If you’re running around giving orders, answering every question you’re asked, deep into the day-to-day, you’ll be so overwhelmed you can’t break free from the insanity of the moment.

Micromanaging makes you the ‘go-to’ person and keeps you as the owner and leader from doing critical work best suited to only you—work like meeting with customers, assessing competitors, identifying new software systems, identifying strengths and weaknesses, and seeing patterns.

The trifecta of ineffective leadership
We see it often enough with our business owner clients, we’ve begun calling this “overdependence,” “overwork,” and “disconnection from the real work of the leader” the trifecta of ineffective leadership.

Instead of telling, ask these 7 questions
We recently read The Coaching Habit by Michael Bungay Stanier. He outlines 7 simple yet powerful questions leaders can use to —
• Clearly define the problem and all its aspects fast
• Generate great solutions
• Create accountability in your team members
• Free up time to do the real work of the leader

Here are the 7 questions you can use to lead by asking questions:

  1. What’s on your mind?  Gets the conversation going fast and deep.
  2. And what else?  Helps you rein in your desire to start telling and gives you time to think.
  3. What’s the real challenge here for you?  We tend to be relieved when the problem is easily solvable, so this question keeps digging to find the root cause. Insures you solve the right problem.
  4. What do you want?  Avoids the illusion that both parties know what the other wants, which leads to frustrating exchanges. Sheds light on each party’s position, clarifies the desired state, and illuminates the choices the requester has or doesn’t have.
  5. How can I help?  Forces a clear, direct request and prevents you from leaping into action.
  6. If you’re saying ‘yes’ to this, what are you saying ‘no’ to?  Gains solid accountability and increases the chance of success.
  7. What was most useful for you?  People don’t learn when you tell them something, nor when they do something. They learn only when they have a chance to recall and reflect. Creates learning for the long-term.

It’s been interesting watching clients lead by asking questions. This recently resonated with Stu, who was constantly barraged, had everyone reporting to him with no leadership team, worked 80 hours/wk, and was pulled in multiple directions at once. He described himself as being “everywhere all the time.”

One day, two of Stu’s guys asked to meet with him with a request to implement a specific type of incentive program, something Stu was pretty sure wouldn’t work. When they met, instead of telling them why it wouldn’t work, Stu tried the 7 questions. The next day he reported how easy it was. His two guys saw the potential problems for themselves and decided the incentive program wouldn’t work. The conversation took less time and had a better outcome than if Stu had taken the usual approach of explaining why the idea wouldn’t work.

Lead by asking questions every day
To make this a habit, I made myself a 5 x 7 card with the 7 questions. I’d pull it out whenever a requester approached. Soon I had the questions memorized. Sometimes I don’t ask every question, but I strive to, to stay true to the magic of the process.

Leveraging these 7 questions can free you up to lead into the future, fulfilling your role as visionary, influencer, constraint-remover, evangelist both internally with team members and externally in the marketplace. It’s a different kind of work but one that paves the road to your company’s certain and profitable future.