Be Curious: The Leadership Art of Good Questions
“What’s your latest obsession?”
Dr. Denis Pym, Organizational Behaviour Professor at the London Business School, told us eager faced MBA candidates what a great question this was for engaging conversations.
“I’ve come to hate cocktail parties, donors and academics standing around drinking plonk white wine, eating Jarlsberg, and talking about banalities. This question gets you away from the dreadful ‘What do you do?’ If people quibble about the word ‘obsession,’ I move on, because talking with dispassionate people is painfully boring. But this question sparks some really interesting conversations. You get to know people”
Denis was a bit eccentric, to say the least. He expounded on “labour in the post-industrial economy,” lived on a Kent farm and told us how he asked corporations to pay him for his consulting in sheep. But he was onto something. Get people to talk about what they are passionately interested in, you’ll be amazed at how you’ll connect with them.
For about five years I conducted a leadership workshop for mid-level leaders at an international oil and gas company. The workshop was called “training,’ and we did share some content, but the workshop’s real purpose is to engage this group of leaders in solving the problems facing the corporation. Mid-level managers touch more people than anyone and they are often purposefully disengaged from change because their job is to make today’s work happen. They sometimes feel change happens to them, but for change to happen they must lead it.
One of the things I share with such groups is that “leadership is about good questions.” Management is about getting today’s work done; Leadership is about change. The key accountability of a leader is to attract followers. Yes, yes, vision is important, because who would follow you if they didn’t have a clear and emotionally charged picture of the future, but the act of following is a choice. People choose to follow because you make them feel part of something. People are more likely to feel part of something if they are talking not you. How do you get people to talk? Ask them a question.
I’m not talking about the standard managerial question: “Have you considered the impact on this quarter’s contribution margin?” Managers, as said, have accountability for today’s work performance. Sometimes they have to ask more and more detailed questions to test the thoroughness of the work. Sometimes they play “Gotcha” with subordinates to avoid slipshod thinking. Some managers get far too much enjoyment from this kind of question.
Nor am I talking about the “I’m so smart” question: “Clearly you have built upon the work of Dr. Deming in the design of the customer feedback system, but have you considered the work of Argyris and Schon on double loop learning to avoid the trap of coloring feedback by the means used to collect it?”
Nor am I talking about the “I’m an executive and you’re not:” “Do you mean to tell me. . . ?”
No, I’m talking about questions that truly engage the questioned, that open a real dialogue, from, which you learn something. These are questions about which you are genuinely curious about what the other person has to say.
First, some questioning basics:
• Open-ended questions begin with What, How, When, Where, Tell me about. They let the answerer talk.
• Closed ended questions begin with Do, Did, Will, Have, Is, Should. These