Questions are the Leader’s Most Powerful Tool

By Jeb Blount, Author of People Follow You: The Real Secret to What Matters Most in Leadership

Here is a fact: As a leader the more questions you ask, the more your people will develop and ultimately win. To help people develop, you must first help them become aware, on their own terms, of the need to change. To do that, you ask questions. Unfortunately most leaders do not ask enough questions.

You’ve likely been through some type of training program where you were taught about open-ended and closed-ended questions. In the training, you learned that open-ended questions are good and closed-ended questions are bad. From there a few general examples of open-ended questions and closed-ended questions were passed around the training room, and, unfortunately, the questioning module was then concluded.

These training programs are effective in teaching you the difference between open-ended and closed-ended questions, but ineffective in teaching how to apply questioning skills to the real world. If you were to interview 100 leaders, 99 of them would tell you that open-ended questions are the most important questions for eliciting information. However, if you were to observe these same leaders interacting with their people you would mostly hear closed-ended questions and subsequent pontification.

To be effective at questioning, you’ve got to be able to ask questions as smoothly as an actor delivers lines in a play. Your questions have to be scripted and practiced so that they sound natural. Questions also have to be engrained in your memory so that you can access them in a nonlinear way based on the specific coaching situation.

The only true way to become competent with asking questions is to practice on real people in real time. Yes, it will be awkward at first, and you will make mistakes. You will stumble on your words, answer your own questions, and revert back to talking at people. That’s okay. Just become aware of your behavior and resolve to get better with each coaching conversation. Soon, asking questions will part of who you are as a leader.

Questions Connect the Dots

Questioning is the tool leaders use to help their people become self-aware of developmental opportunities to change and improve. The key is helping other people come to the conclusion that changing is in their best interest—in other words changing for their reasons not yours. However, once they have agreed to change your most important job as a coach begins. To position people to win you have to help them articulate a specific plan of action and then provide regular feedback to reinforce their new behaviors. A follow-up plan has the following elements.

A clear and specific articulation of the developmental opportunity: “In meetings with customers, Mary sometimes looks at her phone, breaking eye contact. This makes customers feel as though she is not telling the truth or paying attention. Mary is hurting relationships because of this behavior, and it is impacting her customer service score.”

Specific and (when possible) quantifiable action steps: “Mary will make a conscious effort to maintain eye contact. Going forward she will leave her phone in her car or turned off during presentations.”

Follow-up date and planned result (target):  “Mary’s customer service index surveys will improve by at least 5 percentage points by the end of the quarter.”

Once the plan is in place, your job as coach is to follow up frequently and provide feedback to either help the person get back on track or reinforce the new behavior so that it tends to repeat itself. Over time when you repeat this process—questions, agreement, plans, actions, and feedback—your people will develop into long-term winners.

 

Jeb Blount Leadership Expert - Speaker - Author

Jeb Blount

Jeb Blount is a leading expert on leadership and human behavior in the workplace. He helps companies, teams, and individuals transform their organizations and accelerate performance through intense focus on interpersonal relationships.  He is the author of five books including People Follow You: The Real Secret to what Matters Most in Leadership, People Buy You: The Real Secret to what Matters Most in Business, Sales Guy’s 7 Rules for Outselling the Recession, Business Expert’s Guide to Small Business Success and Power Principles.  To learn more call 706-664-0810 x102 or email carrie.martinez@peoplefollowyou.com.

 

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