Good leadership is about asking good questions

By John Hagel

Thursday January 28, 2021

Adobe

You think you have the answers to all important questions? That suggests that you are either clueless — you have no idea how rapidly the world is changing — or that you are lying, writes John Hagel for the Harvard Business Review.

Leaders today need to revisit an overlooked skill: asking questions. In my 40 years as an executive and adviser in Silicon Valley, I’ve often seen leaders assume that people look to them for answers — bold assertions that build people’s confidence in their competence. But in reality, that kind of approach erodes trust, especially at a time when so much is manifestly uncertain. You think you have the answers to all important questions? That suggests that you are either clueless — you have no idea how rapidly the world is changing — or that you are lying. In either case, you won’t find that trust that you’ve been looking for.

Instead, leaders should ask powerful and inspiring questions, convey that they don’t have the answers, and solicit others’ help in responding. The leaders I talk to tend to be nervous about this approach: Won’t it look like they don’t know what they’re doing? On the contrary, research has shown that expressing vulnerability and asking for help is a strong signal to others that you are trusting, and you’re more likely to be trusted in return. In fact, if you can learn to ask questions well, it can help you connect with others. Thinking together with the people that report to you can put you on the path to solving intractable problems and sparking innovative thinking.

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Ask big questions

To be clear: I’m not saying you should ask pointed questions that put others on the spot, like “How can you deliver 10% higher productivity?” or “Are you missing anything here?” The kind of questions leaders need to ask are those that invite people to come together and explore new opportunities that your organisation hasn’t identified yet. Here are some examples:

  • What is a game-changing opportunity that could create much more value than what we have delivered in the past?
  • What are emerging unmet needs of our customers that could provide the foundation for an entirely new business?
  • How could we leverage the resources of third parties to address a broader range of needs for our customers?
  • How can we move from standardised, mass-market products and services to personalising our products and services to the specific needs of each customer?
  • How can we develop supply networks that are more flexible in responding to unanticipated disruptions in production or logistics?
  • How could we harness sensor technology to create more visibility into how our customers are using our products, and use this information to deliver more value to our customers?

Focusing your questions on these kinds of new and big opportunities rather than on the existing activities of the organisation can also help you sidestep your fear that questioning will be seen as a sign of weakness, since there’s no way you could be expected to know the answers.

These broader questions communicate that you have a sense of ambition and that you want to take the organisation way beyond where it is today. You can bolster your credibility by providing evidence of the long-term trends that underlie your question — for example, emerging technologies that are likely to offer new opportunities, or demographic shifts that will create some significant unmet needs among your customers.

Involve others

These questions also invite collaboration. To make the most of them, don’t ask them in closed leadership meetings. Instead, broadcast them throughout your organisation and even beyond it. It’s not just you posing a question to your people; it’s your brand reaching out to learn from its consumers. Reaching out beyond the institution to connect with expertise and perspectives from a broader set of more diverse sources will help your company learn faster.

Consider the case of Domino’s Pizza. About 10 years ago, Domino’s was hearing from customers that they did not like the company’s pizza. Many organisations might have tried to hide this information or work behind the scenes to correct the problem. Domino’s Pizza did something different. The company made public the feedback it was receiving and asked for suggestions on how it could improve the quality of its pies. This open question generated an avalanche of suggestions that proved very helpful in improving the pizzas.

But beyond that, the impact was even more fundamental: By expressing vulnerability, the company built trust with customers. Here was a company that was willing to acknowledge it had a problem and to ask for help in addressing it. If more organisations were willing to ask for help from their customers and other stakeholders when experiencing an issue, they would likely have much greater success in rebuilding trust.

Change your culture

Anxiety can run high in volatile times, and by asking the right questions you can help people overcome some of their fears. It’s well established in the psychology field that coming together with others can reduce anxiety — that’s the idea behind group therapy. And achieving real impact can also help overcome feelings of being overwhelmed. Thus by helping people to focus on short-term actions they can take together, your questions can provide a focusing and calming effect during a crisis.

By asking questions as a leader, you also communicate that questioning is important. You’ll inspire people to identify new opportunities and ask for help when they need it. These behaviours lead to a culture of learning, which is critical, since the institutions that will thrive in the future are those that encourage everyone to learn faster and that more rapidly expand the value they deliver to their stakeholders.

This will be especially true if you encourage exploration that can generate new insights into potential answers to your questions, rather than simply expecting complete answers and nothing less. This will encourage people to make small moves that can help increase excitement about the question, since participants can quickly begin to see progress. As early answers to your question begin to emerge (as a result of experiments or research, for example), share them, even if they are not ground-breaking. They’ll contribute to your culture of learning and show your stakeholders that your questioning is generating new insights, increasing their confidence in your methods.

Leaders who ask powerful questions have the greatest success in both seizing new opportunities and addressing unexpected challenges — and they build cultures that will carry these benefits into the future.

(c) 2020 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Licensing Group

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