Leadership: What's the Question?

A characteristic I have observed in nearly every successful leader I have known is the ability to ask powerful questions. Strong individual contributors, front line supervisors and mid-level managers are usually very good at delivering information to others. As they rise to higher levels in the organization, however, asking good questions becomes a defining quality and a critical success factor.

There are good reasons for this, I believe. First, those in senior leadership roles often find themselves in situations in which they are not the expert, or even very well-informed. With broad responsibilities that cross functions, divisions and lines of business, this is not surprising. Successful leaders sometimes change industries and don’t have the benefit of growing up in their current sector. Entrepreneurs and executives interact with a diverse set of customers whose organizations operate in complex industries and markets. Despite this, leaders must contribute their thoughts and make decisions, and they need information to do so. The most effective way to get up to speed quickly is to ask questions.

More broadly, the best leaders understand that asking questions has a number of long-term positive effects on people and organizations. For example, asking someone for an opinion on an important matter shows respect for that person and builds self-confidence. Further, asking powerful questions broadens discussions, identifies challenges and opportunities, sharpens focus, spurs creativity and more generally, empowers others to think and act.

Some examples:

  • What could we do if we had more time and money?

  • How much of our revenue is from new customers?

  • What innovation have our competitors implemented that we have not?

  • Who are the big “winners and losers” If we go with this plan?

  • On a scale of 1 to 10, how excited are you about this idea?

  • What is one “out of the box” idea that you have been wanting to explore?

  • In one or two words, what do our customers say about us?

  • If you had to pick just one of these initiatives, which one would it be?

  • If you had to put a percentage on it, how likely are we to achieve our goal?

Obviously, there are many other powerful questions that could be asked, depending on the organization and situation. The best leaders I have known never seem to run out of good questions, and take genuine pleasure in posing them.

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