Great leaders ask great questions. Pure and simple. We often think that leaders are the ones who are supposed to have all the answers. Of course, leaders should act decisively but that doesn’t mean that they have all the answers. In order to act decisively a great leader needs to have buy in from the team. Having buy in from the team requires trust and trust building takes time. The notion that trust is instilled until proven otherwise is absolutely wrong. Trust is earned and until it is earned it is absent.
But trust alone will not define a great leader. For the astute leader, on Maslow’s Hierarchy trust is akin to basic human needs like water and shelter. The pinnacle of leadership, which we all aspire to achieve, takes time to cultivate relationships that, of course are founded on trust, but become much more than that over time. Great teams are headed by great leaders and great leaders ask questions.
Here are 5 of what I consider to be the best questions that leaders CONSTANTLY ask of their team. These 5 leadership questions focus on the positive and never the negative. These 5 leadership questions focus on the team member and never the leader. And these five leadership questions focus on the drive towards learning what is needed to constantly improve. All of which are hallmarks of a great leader.
Question 1: Can I get your advice?
I love this question more than any other and find myself asking it every day. We often ask it up the chain of command but rarely down the organizational hierarchy. Great leaders ask it up, down and sideways. When you ask for my advice, it immediately makes me feel important and empowered. It says ‘I don’t have all the answers but perhaps you do”. It solicits buy in and a notion of ‘we are in this together’. And most importantly, it says “I care about what you think”. There are so many good things that come from asking this question that I am shocked that leaders don’t ask it every minute of every day.
Question 2: What do you love about your job?
More is said by this question from what’s not said than from what’s said. So often leaders ask questions such as “how can I keep you engaged?” or “how can I fix what you hate about your job?” Mother Teresa said “never invite me to an anti-war rally but I’ll attend ever peace rally” for a reason. There is a reason that the war on drugs doesn’t work or why focusing on customer churn instead of client retention results in more churn. Focusing on the positive solicits positive responses and it tells the leader what the individual wants more of in her job. Any leader that knows the answer to that question can give someone more of something. But focusing on the negative results in a negative response and it is more often very difficult for the leader to take away things that the individual hates. So focus on the positive and do more of that.
Question 3: What can I do to improve your ability to be successful?
Again, what this is really telling someone is “I care about your success and want to help you achieve it”. This is all too often rare in organizations as the quest for near term results trumps long term planning. But your employees have long term goals and dreams that either you are going to help achieve or they are going to find someone else who will. Knowing what those aspirations really are and being there to help each team member achieve them is what makes a great leader that people will run through walls to support.
Question 4: What should we stop doing?
Believe it or not, there are things that your team ‘has’ to do every day that you don’t even know about. Many of these things likely grew organically over time through processes and assumptions that were implemented but have long since outlived their usefulness. The only problem is that you don’t know it yet. Asking this question uncovers what people are doing just because they think you want them too but serves no useful purpose. I once asked this question only to learn that team members were having to log their time in 4 different places every week. Trimming this down to one source of time entry saved 100 people 1 hour a week each. That’s the equivalent of 2 ½ full time people. Insane.
Question 5: How does the team feel?
If you are in a leadership position, then you have to assume there are times in which you are blind to how the team really feels. Asking multiple people every week how the team collectively feels is a great way to maintain a pulse on the overall team’s engagement. I have found that by not asking how the individual feels or about how a specific individual is doing, then the answers obtained to this question are more relevant and impactful to the larger team environment. Asking it regarding any individual transgresses into something that sounds more like gossip. A leader needs to know how the collective team is doing and the best way to find that out is to constantly observe and ask.
I am sure we can come up with an encyclopedia worth of similar questions. Hopefully the above provides a good starting point. Happy leading.