I believe that the art of asking questions should be considered a fundamental skill for any leaders. Success without it will be short term at best.
For a while it seemed that my premise was a given; however lately I seem to be running into more execs who are more concerned they will look dumb if they let their subordinates, peers or bosses see that they don’t know “everything”. They think that they will lose some amount of power if others can see they aren’t all-knowing about everything. This is unfortunate. Their actions will actually speed up their demise.
The evidence on this issue is very clear: the best leaders recognize that asking questions - all the time - is the single best way to keep in touch with what they most need to know. Great managers ask customers if they have any ideas to improve service levels or products; they ask subordinates for ideas to make the company more efficient; and they ask competitors what they do that is great. The best leaders know that they can never know everything.
They also recognize that asking someone for their ideas makes that person more likely to take their direction.
After 30 years as a former leader of billion dollar organizations and executive coach, I’ve had the chance to see many companies from the inside and out. I am convinced that the majority of North American businesses are filled with employees who are cranky about never having an opportunity to provide ideas to senior management. Because of that, they are performing at fairly low levels because they feel like nobody values their contributions anyway. So why work hard?
When you’re at the top of a department or organization or company, it’s easy to start to believe that you have a certain something that most others don’t. And it can lead to the mistaken opinion that others can’t give you new ideas or tactics that simply due to your position you just can’t see. Worse, your ego may start taking over. At that point, the only time anyone hears from you is when you are telling them what to do.
Check out the others in your organization - there will be many “tellers” but only a few ”listeners”. Ken Lay, former Chairman of Enron was a known “teller”. And when one of his accounting vp’s tried to alert him to impending disaster, he regarded her advice as being incorrect and not worthy of follow-up. Carly Fiorina, formerly of HP, grew into a “teller” and even when all the trade magazines were announcing her imminent departure; she disregarded that as mere gossip because she thought she was invaluable. They died (career wise) with their mouths open.
On the other hand, people like the founder of Amazon, Jeff Bozos, and the founder of DIRECTV, Eddy Hartenstein, were famous for asking everyone for their thoughts and opinions. Bozos is still there despite many forecasts that he’d fail. Hartenstein retired while still very successful when Rupert Murdoch bought that comany.
But don’t take my word for this. (As a matter of fact, never take any coach’s or consultant’s word without checking it out further…) Watch those who you consider to be great leaders in action. Then take your lead from them.
Do the executives in your organization listen enough?