Why it's important to ask the right questions
As a leader, focus less on giving the right answers
(Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from Todd’s upcoming book, “Never Kick A Cow Chip On A Hot Day—Real Lessons For Real CEOs And Those Who Want To Be” from Morgan James Publishing.)
Mantra # 6: Ask a Great Question Today!
Isador Rabi, a recipient of the Nobel prize for physics, gives credit to his mother for helping him become a scientist. He said that when he was a child, his friends’ mothers would ask their children when returning from school, “Did you learn anything today?” Yet his mother would ask, “Did you ask a good question today?”
I recall a specific situation where a CEO asked a very tough and strategic question during a board meeting. This large board, full of very bright people, spent quite some time crafting well-articulated answers to the posed question. After about 30 minutes of debate, a particularly smart fellow identified that the question was not the right question. He reframed the issue with a much better question, which led to a much different conversation. The actual situation had not changed, but the fact that the board was now focused with the right lens made all the difference in the world.
Those of you who are basketball fans know that sometimes an outgunned team can win the game by slowing it down, controlling the pace, and thereby playing a more surgical game. Run and gun doesn’t always win the day. As a business leader, sometimes you need to slow the game down and be more thoughtful in your approach. It is very easy for an individual or a team to respond to a question, and then they are off to the races—down the wrong road!
Here are some examples of reframing questions:
- Rather than asking, “How should we grow our European market?” you might ask, “Where will we receive the best return on our investment in growth?”
- Rather than asking, “How should we solve this problem?” you might ask, “Is this problem large enough to allocate resources to solve?”
- Rather than asking, “Should we be focused on top-line or bottom-line growth next year?” you might ask, “How can we grow our top line next year without compromising our margins?”
Get the idea? Framing questions effectively is one of the most valuable skills you can develop as an executive! Take the time to think before you speak and always understand the type of answer you are seeking, so you can better tailor the question.
Real lesson: Leaders should focus more on asking the right questions rather than giving the right answers. The wrong question, answered accurately, always produces the wrong answer for the situation at hand. You can practice this by asking, “How else could we look at this issue?” Another exercise is to spend a few days keeping track of the number of questions that you ask of others, and the amount of time you spend listening vs. talking. You might be surprised.