Mentorship depends on formulating the right questions and facilitating answers

A consultant's role includes helping your team help itself. Asking the right questions and facilitating the right answers can make this possible.

One of the greatest disappointments I've encountered in my career as a consultant came from an unexpected source. It forced me to think carefully about a consultant's role and the value that we bring to organizations. It also clarified a nagging issue that had bothered me for some time.

I was an architect (titled senior, but not doing senior-level work) on a project involving a mail server upgrade and Web server farm implementation. My project manager worked long hours trying to keep the logistics and planning side of things together while I led my technical team. We worked long hours, deployed new technologies, and generally had a great time. The client technical team worked with us, learning and playing as much, if not more, than we did.

At the end of the engagement, I sat down with my project manager for my final review. While waiting for the meeting to start, I listed all of the wonderful things I accomplished. I looked at the usual litany of technical accomplishments and a handful of procedural coups. It was a job well done, I thought.

My project manager had different ideas. Our meeting focused on my lack of client leadership, my general reserve, and my inability to guide the team through the complex design process. He told me that although the client liked my work, they did not feel that I was a good "leadership fit" for their team. The next project would take place without me.

I was crushed. I thought that helping my client by teaching my expertise freely constituted enough support. I had balanced my visible and invisible roles. Everyone seemed to have a good time and to really enjoy the project. Where was I not providing enough leadership?

Confused and embarrassed, I left a voice mail on my mentor's pager.

Asking questions
A day or so later, my mentor called me back. I had had some time to calm down. We chatted for a bit. Eventually, our talk turned to the work. Slowly, question-by-question, he teased out of me what happened during the engagement. He asked me about how I approached each project team member, stakeholder, and executive sponsor. Every time I answered, my response generated another question, sometimes on the same line and sometimes on a tangent. He asked me questions about connections, about each person's political needs, about the technology being deployed, and how it fit into our career paths. After an hour, he stopped the questions and listened to me ramble.

Once I wound down, he asked one last question, "So, what did I just do?"

Now in the habit of answering questions, I thought about our conversation. A moment's analysis revealed his use of two pedagogical techniques:
  1. Iterative questions: Every answer I provided to a question created another, related question.
  2. Linked questions: Many questions were framed so that they clearly related to previous questions and answers.

I could hear the laughter in his voice when he asked the next question: "Why did I use iterative questions?"

Iterative questions allow the questioner to guide the answerer down a thought path. By framing the questions off of the initial answer, the questioner takes the listener to the next step in the chain of reasoning. In this case, my mentor guided me down the road from worrying about myself to identifying a method for leading conversations.

Okay, I thought, I can do him one better. "And you used linked questions to illuminate potential relationships between concepts, right?"

"Well yes, but that wasn't my next question. Why did we talk about this now?"

That one threw me, until I remembered why I had called him in the first place.

Facilitating answers
My mentor's point, which took me a while to understand, was that senior consultants have two, sometimes contradictory, roles in a project team. We can provide a high level of subject matter expertise in our particular areas. We also have a responsibility to our juniors and clients. This responsibility, sometimes called leadership, revolves around helping those around us think in a rigorous, forward-looking, and process-oriented way.

Our role of subject matter expert often demands that we provide quick answers. In fact, there are times when we serve the client's best interest by providing that answer. True emergencies or disasters require rapid responses.

More often though, we need to step back and consider the situation. The team does not derive any value from us simply providing the correct answer. Being given the answer simply short-circuits someone's own creative process and reduces their commitment to the end product. Instead, we need to bite back what we feel is the correct answer and really listen to the team as they engage in the design process. As the junior members of the team ask questions, we can guide them to the answers we discovered earlier.

One of the great dangers in this approach is assuming that we know the correct answer. Although we may have learned one answer, or an answer that adequately filled a specific need, we need to keep an open mind. Often in the process of questioning, we will together come to a conclusion that neither party could have come up with alone.

The pressure of intellectual honesty
This approach of leading and designing by questioning has two side benefits:

Commitment: Although obvious in retrospect, it shocked me at the time to realize that leading by questions created greater commitment in the team members. By forcing them to weight and make the decisions for themselves, we can create a situation in which each individual has personal commitment to the project activities. Free will is a powerful motivating force.

Honesty: A side benefit, and one I did not immediately see, is that questioning is infectious. Once we start to try to direct our questions for others, we naturally start to do the same for ourselves as well. Every action, design, and decision becomes subject to a constant stream of critical questions, resulting in far better results over time.

Frankly, I was uncomfortable with this technique at first. As I grew into my role as a senior consultant and project manager, I found it invaluable. Not only did it help me to help my teams, but it also allowed me to truly engage in meaningful mentorship, something that had previously eluded me.

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