Great leaders ask lots of questions. They've figured out that their success depends on it.
For a while it seemed that this was widely accepted; however lately I seem to be running into more execs who are concerned they will look dumb if they let their subordinates, peers or bosses see that they don’t know “everything”. They tell me that they may lose some amount of power if others realize 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. We work harder for a boss we think cares about us and our opinions.
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. They've concluded that 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 which most others don’t. This can lead to the mistaken opinion that others can’t give you new ideas or tactics not already considered. You may start to believe that you have a very unique ability to see things from all sides without anyone else's help. Worse, your ego may start taking over. At that point, the only times anyone hears from you are when you are telling them your opinions. Don't think it can happen? Watch for this in the actions of others in your organization - there will be many “tellers” but only a few "listeners".
This happens to people at all ages. 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” although she was once considered an excellent listener. In her case, even when all the trade magazines were announcing her imminent departure; she disregarded what was being said 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 as Rupert Murdoch bought that company.
So - listen up! And be a better executive.
And don’t just take my word for this. (As a matter of fact, never take any coach’s or consultant’s word without checking it out further…) Monitor those who you consider to be great leaders in action. Then take your lead from them.
John M. McKee is the founder and CEO of BusinessSuccessCoach.net, an international consulting and coaching practice with subscribers in 43 countries. One of the founding senior executives of DIRECTV, his hands-on experience includes leading billion dollar organizations and launching start-ups in both the U.S. and Canada. The author of two published books, he is frequently seen providing advice on TV, in magazines, and newspapers.