When I was appointed to my first Board position, Elizabeth Proust, one of Australia’s most experienced and respected chairman, recommended a book that had an enormous influence on my leadership style.
The book was Powerful Questions: That Every Director, Executives & Managers Must Ask by former Melbourne lawyer, Christo Norden-Powers.
Learning about the importance and influence of powerful questions and inquiry opened a new dimension and transformed my leadership style and impact. Yet, it is often a dimension missing in organisations today.
The Missing Middle Years
The skill of enquiry as a management and leadership tool is something that can and should be developed as people move through middle management. Middle managers need to transition out of their area of technical specialisation and find their effectiveness through other people’s expertise to get the job done.
When done well, they become accustomed to leveraging the skills and experience of the people around them through asking the right questions – not just to get to answers, but to engage, explore and discover.
However, I am finding more often that people are reaching executive level without having developed that skillset. Because of the delayering of organisations, and the pace of business, many are transitioning so quickly through middle management that they are not getting the time to develop the skill of productive enquiry.
Where people used to spend several years working their way through middle management, they often now accelerate through that phase in a very short period of time.
Even when employers try to broaden the experience and scope of their middle managers by moving them sideways, employees tend to read it as being “sidelined” and go elsewhere, to a new employer, to get the career acceleration they want. This just compounds the issue.
As a result, I am finding a deep interest and appetite for understanding the impact of questions and enquiry in leadership effectiveness, and learning how to frame powerful questions. I am focussing a lot of my time applying it as a foundation for leadership coaching and mentoring.
Through coaching, clients are understanding that, if they don’t develop the ability to frame powerful questions and inquiry as part of their leadership skillset, they are limiting their leadership capability and impact.
Powerful questioning tips
1. Encourage questions: Others in the team need permission to feel safe to ask questions, otherwise they often get shut down by the “I’m the boss here, I’ll ask the questions” attitudes. Instead, try opening a meeting with “who has a great question?”
2. Discourage grenade – throwing: There is an art to good questions and it’s different than throwing a grenade out there. You must be able to lead in and out of a question and give it context so people feel okay that the question has good intent and is not one designed to catch you out. If it hasn’t got good intent, don’t ask it.
3. Build relationships: Some people who are skilled at using enquiry to engage and develop relationships outside of work fail to apply the same technique at work. Using enquiry and showing you care with those who report to you and other stakeholders in the work environment builds strong engagement and relationships.
4. Avoid interrogation: You should be careful not to use a barrage of questions as a shield or defence. A good questioner also gives something of themselves, such as an example from their own life. If you know all about their family situation or work pressures and they know nothing about you, you have done it wrong.
And when I think back and compare some of the confronting 360 feedback I received early on in my career to the constructive and engaging feedback I received later, I attribute much of my personal change journey to learning the art of questions and inquiry to their maximum effect. The impact can be profound.
About the author: Lesley Morris has extensive executive leadership experience, nationally and internationally, in the engineering, infrastructure and industrial sectors. She has held senior executive and company director roles and she brings expertise in client/customer centric business operations and transformation.
Her experience includes operations, management, business development, major capital works delivery, strategy, group management and ultimately as Executive Director and Non Executive Director.
Lesley believes in the capacity of people to adapt and thrive if they are given the right opportunities and support. She is a passionate advocate of preparing leaders who welcome difference and challenge, are mindful of the shadow they cast, and are both courageous and humble.