Leaders succeed or fail based on their ability to scan the horizon from a 50,000-foot viewpoint as well as their strength to execute on the ground level. Strategic leaders know that to achieve these potentially conflicting goals, the right questions must be asked of the right people at the right time. The specific questions, which will differ according to circumstances, should arise naturally from a solid approach. Here are five principles to guide you toward asking questions that will be effective for producing results.
- Gather widespread knowledge. If you are new to an organization, or if the company you work for has recently been reorganized, there is much knowledge to garner before taking action. It is crucial to ask detailed questions of personnel at every level – and make note of their answers. This will give you an institutional-wide education about the situations at hand.
- Spark engagement universally. Team members who are not regularly invited to provide insight or share their opinions will become frustrated at best, and disgruntled or hypercritical at worst. Ensure that no one is excluded from this process. Asking genuine questions (and listening to the answers) will increase engagement, participation, and ownership of every employee. Moreover, soliciting opinions from staff can heighten creativity and productivity, simply through improving communication and commitment. Open-ended questions (those that can’t be answered simply “yes” or “no”) that encourage dialogue are the most fruitful.
- Uncover solutions internally. When problems arise in an organization, leaders often look outside for answers by engaging consultants or sending senior management off on retreat. Instead, asking questions through internal surveys and other types of focused communication may easily turn up solutions that had seemed elusive. Brainstorming and mind mapping are useful tools to develop questions that may lead to powerful solutions.
- Remove doubt and other uncertainty. When situations arise that seem suspicious or bring foreboding, plunging in with the right questions has two advantages. First, shining light into the darkness will expose any corruption that may be hiding there, allowing the necessary discipline or purging to be carried out. Second, admitting the fact that dishonesty may exist, and questioning the veracity of any arguments to the contrary, will support your stance as a leader to be trusted.
- Look before you leap. Leaping before looking is an amateur’s mistake. Taking time to understand why numbers are down, why a lawsuit is being filed, or why customers are turning away means that your organization’s next actions will be based in reality, not hearsay or speculation. Making big decisions or a substantial change in direction will induce less fear if you’ve first asked the right questions and received detailed answers that support the new trajectory.