Kids Are Great At It, But Most Leaders Aren’t

When you’re at the helm, everyone looks to you for answers. You’ve got to lead the team, be the face of the company, and ensure that everything from dollars to production are where they should be (or even better).


When things go well, you’re the hero whether you deserve it or not. When things go poorly, you’re… well, not the hero, whether you deserve it or not.


With your employees and clients all turning their attention toward your leadership, it’s extremely easy to phase out one of the most critical aspects of management: asking questions. Lots of them, and often.


But they shouldn’t be just any questions. Questions are incredibly complex, which is why so many public opinion surveys deliver dubious results. Not only do you need to make sure you’re asking plenty of questions -- to your clients, your peers, your partners, your service providers, and all of your employees -- but you also need to make sure you’re asking the right questions the right way.


If it sounds difficult, that’s because it is. Stanley Payne, who wrote the landmark 1951 book “The Art of Asking Questions,” pointed out that statisticians work to shave off tenths of a percent of uncertainty in data, while a poorly-worded question can cause swings of tens of percents. As the leader of an organization, you want data that can inform your tough decisions. You face the same problem social scientists, public opinion firms, and data crunchers face.


But forming sharp questions that yield useful results starts with asking questions in the first place. A Harvard Business Review survey found that clients’ children had conversations composed of 70-80% questions, while the clients themselves had conversations consisting of just 15-25% questions. The data didn’t separate clients who were in leadership positions, but we can bet that they leaned toward the lower end of the question spectrum.


Gary Cohen, author of “Just Ask Leadership: Why Great Managers Always Ask the Right Questions,” posits that great questions allow leaders to gather critical information, take bold and appropriate actions, and involve the people around them in the process. And he’s right. Can you think of situations where you were given answers or told exactly what to do day after day and loved it? Probably not.


By asking pointed, well-crafted questions, you’ll get the data you need to be an effective leader -- and you’ll be seen as one. Your employees will feel valued because you’ll constantly be coming to them for insight to inform your decisions. You’ll be making the most of their talent as you show them how much you respect what they have to offer.


Spend a few days gauging your question and answer frequency when you talk to your team. Immediately after every conversation, spend a minute or two recapping. Did you ask several questions? Did you ask any? Did they result in knowledge you could actually use, or were the answers murky? How did you questions (or lack of them) affect the tone and mood of the conversation?


Recap, analyze, and repeat -- and even ask the people around you questions about questions. Tell them what you’re up to and make it clear that you want to draw out their knowledge more often. Do they feel you ask questions often enough? When you do, are they the right ones? There’s only one way to find out.


After candid conversations and some self-reflection, you can pick up one of the many outstanding works on questions -- from HBR articles to Payne’s seminal work to Cohen’s leadership-focused book -- and start to refine one of the most critical skills to great management.

Rodney Steele