This article was first published February 14, 2020 at Troy Media
Questions are one of the most powerful tools we have in our arsenal as leaders, professionals, parents, human beings. One of my favourite personal stories about the power of a question comes from an interview. My final interview for a job I really wanted was with the CEO of the company. After peppering me with questions, he asked if I had any for him. I asked him why he was the CEO. Twenty years later, I can still remember the ‘whiplash’ that unexpected question elicited. Afterward I got feedback that it was a very bold question. I also got the job - either because of, or in spite of - what that encounter said about me.
Questions, unlike opinions or advice, have a unique ability to stop a thought process or redirect a discussion. We have all been in meetings where someone is going on and on about what they think. It is easy to sit back and tune out. But a question immediately demands our attention. The better the question, the more likely we are to perk up, and the more likely the conversation will deepen and our exchange become more meaningful.
What is a good question?
A ‘good question’ has a number of characteristics. It is well-considered. It comes from a place of genuine curiosity. It is ‘on-topic’. It is positioned in a way that allows the discussion to move forward. It requires people to pause and think before answering. It challenges assumptions. It opens up new pathways of thinking.
Coaching is a very popular development strategy for a reason. It is, at its core, all about asking the good question. A really good question is fuel for our reflection, awareness and insight. Most of us like to solve our own problems, and good questions invite us to do that.
When should you use a question?
There are a few key situations where asking a good question or two is more effective than giving advice.
When someone is on the verge of making a breakthrough. When someone you are coaching is close to finding a solution or forming a new insight, it is very tempting to step in and point out the obvious. One of the reasons leaders admit they do more ‘telling’ than ‘coaching’ is because allowing others to work through problems can be painfully slow at times. One of the best ways to help someone make that final leap of insight is by asking a really good question.
When someone is stuck in a rut. Do you know someone who is constantly complaining about the same old thing? When I see that person heading toward me, I can be guilty of looking for an escape hatch. When my friend Perry wanted to talk, for the hundredth time, about how under-appreciated he felt at his company, I decided to change tactics. Perry was stuck in a rut - unhappy but not doing anything about it. Instead of spending 30 minutes listening, nodding and showing empathy, I asked a question instead: “What do you need to do in order to leave this job and move to a place where you will be appreciated?” My question took Perry off-guard because it wasn’t my usual ‘if you hate it so much why don’t you leave?’ question. It was a ‘how’ question, and ‘how’ questions engage our problem solving brains. Instead of complaining, Perry spent the next 30 minutes talking about strategies for leaving, as well as sharing his fears and feelings of inadequacy. Asking a really good question can be the impetus for helping someone get ‘unstuck’.
When someone is coasting. When you see someone who is not living up to their potential, a question is far more effective in inspiring action than a judgment. For example, telling your daughter she could have had an A in math if she had worked a little harder is unlikely to be met with a positive response. Asking her ‘how important is it to you to get an A in math this year?’ is more likely to help her reflect on and tap into her own motivation.
Knowing when and how to ask a good question is an invaluable skill. It will make you a better leader, a better coach, a better parent, a better friend. And asking really good questions is also the best way I know to come across as really smart without having to know all the answers.
A version of this article was first published for my HR Column on Troy Media.
Leading a team requires a skill set that is completely different from that of managing your direct reports. I have worked for leaders who were great at galvanizing a team but really ineffective one-on-one, and amazing bosses who were terrible team leads. Actually, most of the people I’ve worked for fall into the second category. This is because leading a team is a complex and difficult task. When things aren’t going well on the team, the common solution is to get people together for a team intervention. The hope is spending time together delving into and trying to understand personal styles will fix things. Team building workshops can be powerful tools to improve working relationships, engagement, alignment and business results - in the right circumstances. But it’s also important to know when not to use a team intervention to try and fix a problem. There are 3 situations when team interventions are best avoided.
When you have a dysfunctional relationship with one of your direct reports. Team workshops are not the appropriate place for you to try and resolve issues with one person on your team. It’s like deciding to have an argument with your significant other and inviting your family and friends over to watch. I have had to sit in the room when this was in play, and I can tell you how uncomfortable it is. In over 20 years of practice, I have never seen or heard of a situation where a boss-employee relationship was mended as the result of a team intervention. More likely, you will both say things in public you will later regret and the chasm between you will widen. Whatever you need to do to resolve a poisoned relationship you need to do behind closed doors.
When it’s all about one person. Sharon, the president of a business unit, was struggling with the level of conflict between her team members. She was tired of constantly being called on to step in and mediate. She desperately wanted to get people on the same page and working together. Talking with everyone in preparation for the offsite it became clear to me one person was the source of conflict and dysfunction. When confronted with this, Sharon admitted John could be difficult but she didn’t realize - or didn’t want to admit - his full impact. The offsite went ahead and within the first hour everyone knew spending 2 days together locked in a room was not going to propel them forward. In the end, Sharon made the difficult decision to replace him, and he has gone on to find a situation that is a better fit for him. It was the right call, just too late. If you have one person on your team who is at the epicentre of your team’s dysfunction, don’t fool yourself into thinking a day of team building exercises is going to make a meaningful difference. All you are doing is sending mixed messages and delaying the inevitable.
The organization is in flux. Fred, a director of marketing, is getting a lot of pressure from his team to get them together for an offsite. His team members all like each other and work pretty well together, but they are struggling to make decisions and getting bogged down by conflicting priorities. They feel they don’t understand where the company is going and what is important. They are anxious to get in a room together and have a high-level conversation with Fred about long-term strategy. Fred knows big change is headed their way and is reluctant to start a conversation about strategy, knowing it is likely to shift in the next few months. Fred is right to push back on his team’s request at this time. Not only would the offsite be a waste of time and energy, his team is likely to feel betrayed when it comes to light he knew the effort would be futile but proceeded anyway. If you know there is imminent change that will re-set the business strategy or team leadership, hit the pause button. The foundation for an effective team is clarity of purpose, and when that purpose isn’t clear even to the leader, it just gets muddier.
Before you jump head-first into a team building session stop and ask yourself, ‘is this really going to resolve the issue?’ If the answer is no, move on.
If It Talks Like a Duck: How Confusing Leadership Presence with Leadership Effectiveness Leads to Bad Hiring Decisions
Taylor is one of those confident, outgoing guys who stands out in a crowd. He looks like a leader, talks like a leader, and collects fans the way charismatic types do. He has built an impressive career. When I asked him what has been key to his success, he spoke about the importance of never staying too long in any one job or organization and being aggressive and aspirational in pursuing the next opportunity. The funny thing about Taylor is, if you stop and objectively evaluate his success beyond the positions he’s held, he comes up short. While he’s been successful, the projects he’s managed, the teams he’s built, the businesses he’s led have not been particularly remarkable or successful. In fact, he is someone who consistently disappoints. In his case, moving from one company and opportunity to another helped him evade questions about his real effectiveness. Because Taylor looks like a leader and talks like a leader, people have - erroneously - assumed he is a leader. This is a common, and potentially disastrous, human decision-making error: confusing leadership presence with leadership effectiveness.
It is this very human error that tends to get us, as citizens, into trouble in the political realm. We are naturally attracted to those candidates who possess leader-like qualities and we get behind them. It isn’t until after the fact we discover that, sometimes, looking like a leader and sounding like a leader does not translate into an ability to lead.
It is this same human error that gets CEOs and boards into trouble when they make judgments and decisions about personnel. When we use ‘executive presence’ as a proxy for effectiveness, we run the risk of hiring or promoting someone who proves unable to translate their leadership presence into results.
Strategies to Avoid Getting Duped by Leaders Who are ‘Big Hat, No Cattle’
There are things you can do to avoid hiring people who possess more leadership presence, confidence and ambition than they do real ability.
Be aware of the natural tendency to be attracted to and distracted by leadership presence. Knowledge is power. If you know we tend to correlate leadership emergence with effectiveness you can guard against it. When you hear yourself thinking or saying ‘she really stands out as a leader,’ follow up with ‘I wonder how effective she really is.’
Seek out and supplement intuition with hard data. Sometimes it is easier to make judgments and get to the heart of someone’s effectiveness when there isn’t so much veneer. When there is a lot of veneer, this is the time to be more diligent in supporting your gut reaction with facts. Expand the reference pool and dig deeper. I recently did a 360- feedback process for someone who got glowing reviews from everyone I spoke with. It wasn’t until I dug in and asked about results that I heard things like "yeah, I really like her and would work with her again in a second, but to be honest, while she did okay she really wasn’t as successful as we were expecting". Things to watch out for include: a track record of promotions generated by moving between rather than within an organization and frequent job changes before results can be adequately assessed.
Psychometrics can be your friend. In my leadership practice I use both in-depth interviews as well as psychometrics (you know, those pesky online leadership assessments) to understand leadership effectiveness. They can provide important supplemental information about leadership style and personality variables that are missed by interviewers. Leader-like people perform exceptionally well in interviews. Good psychometric tools can help to tease out leadership presence from leadership effectiveness so you don’t get duped.
Know when to cut your losses
We all make mistakes, sometimes in spite of our diligence. It can be hard to face up to bad decisions - it is embarrassing to admit you have mis-judged someone. Discovering your new CEO isn’t very effective in leading the people or the business is a hard pill to swallow. But leadership effectiveness requires the building of managerial ‘muscle’ and ‘scar tissue’ over time and experience. Can you afford to try and transform this leader’s emergence into effectiveness at this stage in their career? If the answer is ‘no’, best to move on. If the answer is ‘yes’, you will need to figure out how you are going to do that. Step one is convincing that leader she is not as effective as she believes herself to be. It isn’t impossible, but it is probably not going to be very easy. After all, look at her track record.
What to Do if This is You
What if you are the person who possesses tremendous leadership presence but hasn’t been able to translate it into real and sustained leadership success? Sometimes our self-confidence and belief that we ought to be in charge can get in the way of the vulnerability that is required to actually learn how to be effective. The good news is, you are starting from a position of strength - people already see you as a leader. Here are some strategies to get you on your way.
Admit you may not be as great as you think you are. As they say, admitting you have a problem is the first step. My favourite people to work with are those who see themselves as always coming up short and in constant need of development to improve as leaders. Not surprisingly, these are usually the people who are most effective and need my help the least. When you say you want to improve, do you really mean that or is it a superficial acknowledgement? Where is the evidence to back up your commitment to change? Are you prepared to do the work?
Seek a deeper level of self-awareness. Not all of us are blessed with penetrating insight into who we are and what makes us tick. Strategies for supplementing your own insight include 360-reviews and those pesky psychometrics. These tools are designed to tell you, in very objective terms, about you.
Get professional help. I know that you don’t just want to be a leader, you want to be a good leader. If being an effective leader were so easy, you would have figured it out by now. It isn’t easy. So admit you need help transforming yourself into the leader you want to be and seek out the help and support of someone who can really help you make that happen. This isn’t a 30-day program. This is a lifelong pursuit.
This article was inspired by a webinar entitled The Impact of Narcissism on Leadership courtesy of Hogan Assessments (www.hoganassessments.com), the Alberta provincial election, and at least one ‘big hat, no cattle’ leader I’ve bumped into recently.
A version of this article was first published in my monthly Troy Media column and can be viewed at http://www.troymedia.com/2015/03/30/tips-to-becoming-a-strategic-thinker/
Last week I started working with a leader who suddenly finds herself on the executive team. A corporate restructuring caused her to skip a level and now she is sitting around the table asking, ‘am I strategic enough to do this job?’ Her question is not unique. Twenty years of working with leaders on their development has taught me there are 3 leadership success factors executives worry about most: public speaking, financial acumen and strategic thinking. The typical solution for the leader who wants to be more strategic is to attend an executive education program called something like "Strategic Planning for Executives". What usually happens is they take the program, have a wonderful time, develop some really good peer connections, and then complain the course was aboutplanning not strategic thinking.
What is strategic thinking?
Strategic thinkers demonstrate the following characteristics:
Can strategic thinking be learned?
First, the bad news. Everyone’s brain is wired differently. Some people are profoundly creative. Others have an intuitive sense around people. Your brain is your brain. Best to know what it does well, and where the wires don’t connect.
Now, the good news. If you understand how your brain works, and you know what you want it to do, you can apply it in new ways.
How to be more strategic
Not every strategist will be a leader, and not every leader will be a strategist. Being a strategic leader is a combination of strategic thinking and strategic action.
Tactics for developing strategic thinking include:
Tactics for developing strategic actions include:
Everyone wants to be strategic. While you might not be the most strategic thinker by nature, strategic action can be nurtured.
Your future success as a leader depends upon your ability to translate feedback and awareness into a tangible development plan. Unfortunately, you probably have no idea where to start. After 20 years in the business of helping to transform leaders and organizations I am convinced, more than ever, that the ‘black box’ in bridging the gap between leadership potential and reality is development. There are endless solutions for acquiring feedback that point in the direction of change. There are, likewise, endless solutions for measuring and rewarding performance. What is most often missing is what happens in between - a fundamental understanding around how to move from leadership aspiration to reality. In essence, how to change behaviour. If you are a leader interested in how you can transform yourself, read on.
Step 1: Gain Clarity Around You Who Are and Who You Aspire to Be
Why should anyone be led by you? We don’t spend enough time asking ourselves who we want to be when we grow up and why we should be leaders. How can you tackle your development if you really don’t know who you are and what you stand for? I have had the privilege of working for leaders who ‘get’ this and the less-than-inspiring experience of working for those who do not. Quite honestly, there is nothing more frustrating or disillusioning than working for someone who really does not have an interest in developing their identity as a leader.
Defining Who You Are as a Leader
I will admit I can be a tedious leadership coach. When I am working with leaders in the context of personal transformation, before we even discuss where they should focus in terms of their development, I ask them to answer these questions:
Step 2: Setting Development Targets and Priorities
The goal of leadership development is to align intent with behaviour in order to achieve higher-order objectives in the context in which you find yourself. So often, leadership development springs from a mis-match between what a leader is striving to do and what is coming across to key stakeholders. The extent to which you are aware of and can objectively assess your development opportunities determines your ability to develop strategically and intentionally.
Questions leaders should ask before determining development priorities and next steps
Not everything that you get feedback on is worthy of development. I don’t particularly care what your 360 feedback, leadership assessment report or leadership coach have to say about how you need to change. Instead, I suggest you ask yourself a series of questions to get at the heart of where you should focus your development:
Making Change Stick
Where the rubber hits the road around personal development is translating your desired future behaviour into tangible action steps that will result in real change. I have seen a lot of development plans; I have seen a lot less actual development. If you are serious about actually transforming who you are as a leader, the very best resource I have found for changing behaviour is James Clear’s Transform Your Habits. My summary of how to translate development intent into sustainable behaviour change is:
Transform Your Habits (2nd Ed.). James Clear. www. jamesclear.com
Because it is January, chances are you are frantically trying to schedule year-end performance reviews. The dreaded performance review - quite possibly the most detested HR program ever invented. It doesn’t matter what process, form or technology is in place to accomplish this task, it is always bad. But what if I were to tell you that you can put an end to the madness? It is probably not realistic to eliminate the task altogether (someone from HR will hunt you down eventually), but you can put an end to the dreaded part. I know I did.
Step 1: Focus on performance planning, not performance review
How would you feel, as a fan, if your favourite hockey team showed up on the ice without a game plan. Instead of carefully crafted and well-rehearsed strategies and plays to get the puck in the net, the coach decided just to ‘play it by ear’. That is what a lot of leaders do with their teams. Instead of investing time and energy in crafting well-considered performance contracts that align tightly with business objectives, a lot of leaders leave their direct reports to ‘wing it’ on a day-to-day basis. I have seen large, complex organizations with serious strategic objectives fail to engage employees in anything resembling a robust performance planning process. Each member of your team should have clearly defined deliverables that directly align with your deliverables, which should directly support your boss’ deliverables, and so on. This process takes effort, but at the end of it each of your team members will have a concrete business plan they will use to prioritize their time and performance. They will know what is expected of them and align their activities accordingly.
Step 2: Hold weekly review meetings based on the performance contract
When I took on managing a senior team my coach gave me a piece of advice: hold weekly 30 minute update meetings with everyone. The prospect of that seemed overwhelming to me at the time, but I decided to trust her and give it a shot. While it wasn’t always easy, and sometimes the weekly meeting drifted to a bi-weekly meeting, I can tell you it worked. For 30 minutes each week, team members provided a short and snappy update against their performance plan. Anything not directly related to the plan was dealt with in a separate meeting. What did this accomplish? Focus. Momentum. Timely, relevant two-way feedback. No surprises. Results. My team got the important stuff done. This is what performance management (and people leadership) is all about. More importantly, as a team we knew we were contributing in a significant way to helping the organization achieve results and we felt good about our accomplishments.
Step 3: Watch performance review become a non-event
When formal mid-year or year-end performance reviews were due, it was a non-event for us. Everyone knew where they stood because we tracked this on a regular basis. And because I knew my team were achieving their goals, I knew I was delivering on my commitments to my boss. So instead of spending time arguing about and negotiating performance ratings, we spent our time talking about development and career goals. And that is how you engage employees. Not by handing them a report card like they are still in grade-school, but by helping them paint a picture of their future.
I have many shortcomings as a leader, but performance management is something I was pretty good at. But only because I was intentional in building it into my management routine and relentless in executing against it. So make this the last year you say you hate performance reviews. It’s January, after all. Time to get on that performance planning process.
This month's blog was inspired by a conversation on building organizational alignment with DC, a newly appointed CEO.