Why CEOs need to ask good questions — and listen to the answers
Leaders who do make better decisions and fewer mistakes
“Freedom from the desire for an answer is essential to the understanding of a problem.” — Jiddu Krishnamurti, Indian philosopher
I had an epiphany a dozen years ago when I transitioned from CEO to consultant and coach. I’d spent the previous 25 years looking for answers — the faster the better! Ready, fire, aim! Provide clarity as quickly as possible. Slowing down to better understand the issue was a luxury I couldn’t afford, because there were customers to be won, problems to solve, hills to climb—or so I thought.
Luckily, as I moved from executive to adviser, I was just smart enough to realize that I could leverage my leadership experience in helping others succeed, but I couldn’t tell them what to do. I couldn’t manipulate them into doing what I thought was right even though I was confident that I knew the answer.
I could only help them look at the situation with objectivity, identify options, estimate risk and reward and let them make their own decision. (And by the way, when I thought I was right, my clients often had a better answer!)
I went from continual two-minute offense to “slow the game down” long enough to ask the right questions, because the right answer to the wrong question isn’t helpful, and unintended consequences stink!
If you’re a philosopher like Krishnamurti, who someone sponsored to wander the Earth and search for meaning, never finding the answer might be an option. As leaders and managers, you don’t have that luxury.
Leaders and managers are paid to find answers. Ready, fire, aim is preferable to ready, aim, aim, aim. Speed is a tactical advantage. But combine the need for answers with speed, and sloppy thinking often results.
There are life and death situations where literally slowing the game down may not be possible. How do Navy SEALS deal with this? By training like crazy for all possible situations. As a CEO, however, you’re deployed all the time. You can’t spend most of your week training. Although simulations and thinking deeply about your business are extremely helpful, the phone will ring five times in the next hour and you’ll have to make decisions. Planning won’t stop all fires from starting.
Where there’s no excuse for sloppy thinking, however, is in the arena of the big questions that every CEO must answer: What’s our strategy? How do I align my team and create commitment? Who do I need to be as a leader?
One of the most valuable skills a CEO can acquire is the discipline to frame issues quickly and withhold decisions long enough to consider information in addition to what they already know (or think they know!).
The tool they must master is asking good questions. Slow down the game — and I mean this literally! Don’t avoid tough issues or give in to insecurity, but take a few more minutes to ask the right questions. You’ll make better decisions and fewer mistakes.
Let’s change the quote above by adding one word to make it relevant to the business executive. Freedom from the desire for an immediate answer is essential to the understanding of a problem.