Ask Questions to Improve Your Leadership

This is a guest post by friend, executive and mentor Bruce Rhoades, who retired after having run several companies. He often helps me with strategy. I am delighted that he is a regular contributor. Follow him on Twitter.


Leadership is Not About Knowing All the Answers

Leadership is not about knowing all the answers—it is about leading others to do their best to accomplish goals, solve problems and grow. How many times have you seen a “leader” arrive at the wrong conclusion or take misguided action because they did not know all the facts? How many times have you been frustrated because you were not asked to provide your opinion, perspective or experience?



When leaders do not take time to formulate and ask appropriate questions, the whole organization suffers—people do not contribute their best; they do not grow, and the organization often takes sub-optimal or wrong action. Likewise, leaders that do not ask purposeful questions can demoralize the organization, gradually turn associates into non-thinking “yes people” and risk looking foolish or arrogant.

A leader’s effectiveness can be greatly improved by using insightful questions. Here is how.



Benefits and Power of Asking Questions

With the proper use and timing, asking questions allows a leader to:

  • Guide the direction of the conversation and focus the discussion
  • Clarify what others have said to improve understanding
  • Improve decisions with better, in-depth information from people who may know more
  • Formulate well-informed decisions with input from other perspectives to better define issues
  • Precipitate a decision by asking for options and exactly what is needed to decide
  • Develop alternative options
  • Raise the level of thinking in the organization, often to broader, more strategic issues
  • Improve organizational collaboration and communication
  • Help move from concepts and discussions to action and defined accountability
  • Help focus on results and outcomes
  • Empower the organization
  • Make people feel valued and improve job satisfaction
  • Solicit input from those who may not typically speak up
  • Improve organizational learning
  • Inspire creativity and new ideas
  • Buy time to think
  • Help overcome wasted authority.
  • Allow confrontation without making statements by inducing people to explain themselves
  • Lead others to conclusions
  • Suspend the business discussion to discover problematic interpersonal issues, attitudes and concerns
  • Improve self-reflection to discern what was learned, mistakes made, missed opportunities to mentor, what to do differently



My Most-Used Questions

Each of us can come up with a list of questions to be used in the appropriate circumstance. Here is a list of questions that I have found to be effective and useful:

  • What is the real issue here? Is this part of a larger issue? Is this a symptom or a cause?
  • How would you state the strategy?
  • What are the three top alternatives? What information do we need to make a decision?
  • Why can’t we make a decision on this issue?
  • What if we tried this? (suggest an action)
  • What assumptions are we making?
  • What are the constraints? How can we overcome them?
  • What are the downsides? What can go wrong?
  • What are the first three actions we need to take? What is the next step?
  • What would a good outcome look like? How can we make this better?
  • What are measures of success? How do we know it is working/successful?
  • What is holding us back?
  • What does the customer really want? How do we know?
  • What are the elements of value to the customer, the organization?
  • What are the top three benefits?
  • How can we prove the concept before full commitment?
  • What must be true (or happen) for this to work?
  • If you were them, what would you want?
  • How can we get ahead of the competition? How can we put “sand in the gears” of the competition? How can we take 10% of their business?
  • If you were our competitor, what would you do? How would you take 10% of our business?
  • What is the most effective way to market/sell the product?
  • Who are the best people to work on (or solve) this?
  • Who should decide this? Who needs to be involved?
  • Why are we doing it this way? What needs to change?
  • What do we need to: Start doing? Keep doing? Stop doing?
  • What do you need from me? What do you need to get started?
  • What three things can we do to improve this?
  • What does a win-win look like?
  • What else?
  • What can we/you learn from this mistake? What should we/you do differently in the future?
  • What do you think? What do you suggest?
  • How do you feel about this?
  • What do you mean by that?
  • How do you expect me to react to that statement?
  • What is the breakeven point? Sales, profit, volume, etc.
  • Why not raise the price?
  • What do you need to make this work?
  • Why?
  • What did I learn today? What could I have done differently? What opportunities did I miss?



Guidelines for Using Questions

For many in leadership, asking questions does not come naturally; however, it is a skill that can easily be learned and used effectively. There are a few things to keep in mind to use questions productively:

  • Catch yourself before making a statement. Instead, ask yourself what question you could ask to leverage the knowledge of others.
  • Change your perspective. Assume you know little about the topic and need others to provide the information.
  • Listen and dig deeper. Ask follow-up questions to get more information, clarify meaning and get to real issues.
  • Ask open-ended questions. Do not ask “yes” or “no” questions unless that is the answer you want.
  • Give up a bit of control. Allowing others to respond to questions may cause some “wondering” on a topic, but it is often useful in getting to real issues.
  • Don’t get defensive. If the direction your question takes is not the one you anticipated, suspend judgment and remain influenceable.
  • Use the “rule of threes.” It is helpful to ask for three options, alternatives, actions, etc. That way people do not feel they have to have the single, “right” response.
  • Get comfortable with silence. If you ask a question, do not be the next person to speak. If there is silence in a discussion, others will begin to participate.
  • Never underestimate the effect of a well-timed silence. Sometimes the best thing to do is not to ask a question, but let others take the lead.
  • Allow feelings to be expressed. Many times there are interpersonal issues that inhibit business actions and decisions. Use questions to discover them. Simply ask, “Is it just me, or is there something else that is going on here.” Or ask, “Am I the only one that feels like…”
  • Do not conduct an inquisition. Questions should be part of a discussion and used to facilitate, not used in an interrogative fashion.
  • Questions are not a substitute for making decisions, setting direction and taking action.



Final Thoughts

Asking questions not only makes leaders more effective but it also makes leadership easier!  In my experience with interim assignments in different organizations, it was impossible to know all the answers or even all the facts. By asking pertinent questions, not only were others empowered and allowed to shine, but decisions and actions were implemented efficiently by the organization since several in the organization helped formulate them.



The use of questions does not mean that a leader does not need to decide and act, but it does make the process stronger and more credible.



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