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Leadership Today - Practical Tips For Leaders

Jul 3, 2020


Being a great leader isn’t about having all the answers - it’s often about asking the right questions. This week we look at ten great questions leaders ask.



Hello and welcome to episode 84 of the Leadership Today podcast where each week we tackle one of today’s biggest leadership challenges. This week we look at ten great questions leaders ask.

One of the most significant societal and workplace shifts over the past two decades has been from answers to questions. Like many of you, I grew up before the internet. If I had a question about something, there was only a few options of where I could turn for answers. There was the school library which had, amongst other books, a complete set of Encyclopaedia Britannica. At home we had the more budget version - the World Book Encyclopaedia. In order to keep the encyclopaedias up to date, the publishers would send out a 'Year Book' update each year. That included little tabs that you could put in the relevant spots in the original encyclopaedia to point out that the information was now out of date, and which year book to refer to instead. 

Answers were difficult to find and expensive to access. Even simple things like finding out movie session times involved buying the newspaper or a phone call to the cinema. The relative cost of answers meant that you were very careful in the questions you asked, and relatively trusting in the material presented.

The internet changed everything. Firing up Netscape Navigator allowed information and answers from all over the world to suddenly be at our finger tips...if only we could find them. 

Services like Google helped to categorise content and make it searchable. Over the next few years answers suddenly became cheap. Now you don’t need to go to the library or buy the book, because chances are someone else has written the same content up online.  If you want to know the history of France, how birds fly or how to fix your washing machine, the internet is your one stop shop for information. Answers have become prevalent and cheap. It’s now the trustworthiness and quality of answers that varies.

Questions are the valuable commodity now. Perhaps they always have been, but even more so in this landslide of opinion and content. As leaders our role is less about providing answers, and more about helping people to ask the right questions. Great questions help people to discern between competing opinions in order to craft a way forward. As research has highlighted, questions build both liking and learning - they help to build connections and trust. Yet many of our educational institutions and workplaces still focus on rote learning and parroting back facts. 

So what are some great questions to ask? A quick search on Google revealed “350 Good Questions to Ask - The only list you'll need” followed by the next entry “253 Good Questions to Ask - The only list you'll need.” As tempting as it is to just copy and paste those posts in, instead here are 10 questions I have fond helpful that provoke, challenge and extend our thinking:

  1. What are our strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats? There’s a reason why a SWOT analysis is still beneficial. It forces us to look outside at the upside and downside possibilities, while also considering our own capabilities. 

  2. What does success look like? People work together more effectively when they’re clear about the end state they’re working towards.

  3. What’s the problem we’re trying to solve? Sometimes we can be busy trying to solve something when we’re actually not clear about the problem. As a result we can end up working towards solving the wrong problem. Work with people to define a problem statement - episode 33 has more information on how to structure that.

  4. Who else is involved or impacted? It’s easy for us to overlook the human element of situations, so always make an effort to consider who else should be involved.

  5. What else could we try? We often stop at the first proposed solution but that’s rarely the best way forward. Instead, make sure you bring out as many options as possible.

  6. How do you feel about this? We can underestimate the emotional element. Feelings matter and they impact our ability to make decisions. 

  7. What’s getting in our way? Or What is likely to get in the way? It’s important to anticipate obstacles so we can plan options to push through or avoid them.

  8. What progress have we made? Often we don’t spend enough time reflecting on the progress we have made. Taking time to reflect can help encourage us to keep going.

  9. What support is available? We often underestimate the amount of support available to us. It’s important to consider the people and resources around that can be of assistance.

  10. What will we do next? Help your people to move beyond conversation to action. I often encourage people to think about what they can do in the next 24 to 48 hours.

There will always be places on leadership teams for those who can ask the right questions. It turns out that a great question is as much about innovation as it is about information - it takes the conversation forward in a new direction. As leaders we need to focus less energy trying to have all the answers, and spend more time getting the questions right.

Well I hope that was helpful. I’ve brought together a range of our on demand resources into one place. This includes recordings of webinars on a range of leadership topics, and our Boost Your Assertiveness course. Each month I’ll add another webinar, and there will be an additional video course added each quarter. Just go to the website and click on the on demand link to take a free 7 day trial. Have a great week.



The Surprising Power of Questions by Alison Wood Brooks and Leslie K. John
Harvard Business Review, May–June 2018 Issue