Leadership essentials : Ask the right questions

Asking the right questions is an essential capability for effective leadership, says Richard Cowley.

Ask the right questions for effective leadership

Generally, HR looks after its own processes. For decades now, HR has come to be known as the ‘nurse’ in the organisation — caring for people, aiding their healing, taking their curses with a smile, and continuing to care for the very same people who abuse HR! Today, the changing workplace demands that HR step into a new role — that of a doctor. One who steps in, diagnoses and solves problems, and gets things done, while caring for people all along. This shift in attitude — from nurse to doctor — needs us to equip ourselves, beginning with taking note of where we fall short.

The transition to business partners

What got us here will not take us to where we want to be. As HR leaders, our journey is accelerating and the past expectations, practices and structures we learnt will not enable us to meet our full potential as value-adding HR business partners.

If we are to command the respect of business leaders, it’s essential that we do two things concurrently — we excel in delivering HR deliverables, which gives us a seat at the table, and at the same time, we demonstrate our ability to contribute to the broader business deliverables. One of the abilities I consider critical in this process is the ability to ask the right questions.

This ability is essential for any leader of today, but particularly important for the people processes owner. It remains a skill that is often undervalued and usually acquired by chance, or as part of a broader development programme, that is counselling or coach programmes.

Why is asking the right questions critical?

If you resonate with this great wisdom that Confucius believed in — “If you tell me, I might forget. If you show me, I might remember. If you involve me, I will understand.” — then you have already understood the value of asking the right questions.

This isn’t a new-age fad or the next big buzzword, the most effective leaders have used questions to drive connection since the beginning of time.

When asking the right question becomes a discipline or habit, you will have mastered one of the ‘six-pack leadership capabilities’. Although not often explicitly stated as a workforce core competence, it does have that level of importance and one of the highest return of investments (ROI) that I have seen.

What is a ‘right’ question?

To illustrate, let me share some questions and ask you to reflect on how you feel as you read them:

a) Why did you do it that way?

b) I believe that doing it this way will be best for the department, what do you think?

c) Why don’t you change that key performance indicator to be more reflective of the customer need?

At this point, how are you feeling? Do these elicit a feeling of accusation? Do they make you feel that your opinion is just to support someone else’s thought or as if you are being told what to think? In the spirit of Confucius — do you really feel involved? These types of questions are given negative names, that is, ‘closed’, ‘leading’ and ‘judgmental’ — often reflecting how they make the receiver feel.

Let’s try three more.

a) What was your thinking about the delayed delivery date that happened yesterday with our top customer?

b) What do you think would help to improve the performance of our customer service team?

c) How can we develop collective key performance indicators for our departments?

Known as open-ended questions, these three aim to initiate a dialogue — the first step in the bridge to connecting with another person. These questions have no right or wrong answer and essentially allow people to express themselves freely, creating a sense of involvement. It is this sense of involvement that will deliver outstanding returns.

There are many benefits of asking the right questions. Here are a few:

Greater awareness and accountability: One of the principle outcomes is that the person asked the question will have a heightened level of awareness and accountability because they have had to formulate a response of their own.

Meaningful relationships: As long as you are sincere, listen with all senses, and respond with equal engagement, you will continue to strengthen the bridge and form relationships.

Development of self and others: There is a power-learning aspect that asking questions can build. The right questions can drive extraordinary performance.

The right solutions: The power of the question can be measured by the answer. The reply will often provide you with an outcome that supports your judgements around people. By asking, instead of telling, we can understand the respondent better — whether they think in an operational or strategic way — and structure solutions accordingly, to work on their level.

The importance of facilitating

Whether it be business opportunity development, KPI development, process improvement activity or HR process delivery — facilitating leadership or group sessions will enable you to become an effective HR business partner. Facilitation using the right questions will enable you to partner with the business as well as enable others to partner with you — building credibility and a belief in your ability to contribute and add value to the business.

You do not have to be a functional, project or process expert to ask the right questions. You only need to know what questions to ask, when and how. For example, in a business strategy development session, using the OGSM (objectives, goals strategies and methods) framework, I often ask hundreds of open-ended questions that aim to gain alignment on business opportunities. The outcome is a robust, focused set of business objectives and deliverables, without which businesses would potentially be spending enormous amounts of time and resources chasing the wrong outcomes.

Timing matters

There is a right time to be a mentor, coach, facilitator, trainer, problem-solver, counsellor, leader, manager, partner, friend, relative, and of course, an employee. Choosing the right role at the right time will ensure delivery of the desired outcomes.

Irrespective of the myriad roles you play each day, asking the right questions will ultimately enable you to be an effective person. Context will drive when and how your questions are valued. However, as a starting point — it is an art and behavioural science that will help you build a strong connection with anyone, at and outside the workplace.

In summary, asking the right questions is a core business and HR leader competence to me. Making this a habit will ensure that you become known as the team member who always contributes and helps, even though you did not have to come up with the answer yourself. The right questions at the right time will deliver value beyond the questions themselves.

This article first appeared in the Financial Chronicle.


About Malathi Jogi

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