The value derived by leadership, from asking well-thought-out questions, is found in two areas:
- Constantly reaching better solutions to problems and issues confronting a company.
- Building for the future of a company through leadership-initiated employee development.
Leaders wear many hats within successful companies. They inspire, point the way, make decisions, and set milestones. They should also play a key role in the company by asking meaningful questions.
There are four distinct reasons why leaders should ask questions:
- To engage their staff and employees in the process of making the company successful and thus involving them as an integral part of that success. This promotes employee self-esteem, dedication to the company, and buy-in with decisions made.
- To encourage their staff and employees to be critical and creative thinkers.
- To foster a culture where employee generated problem solving, new ideas, and innovations are encouraged at every level of the company to stay ahead of the competition and improve the bottom-line.
- To stay in touch with important day to day operational details within the company.
Dynamic leaders have insight, a dream, a vision, and/or the drive to be successful. They are constantly involved in answering key questions, making decisions, and moving the company forward. Leaders also have a responsibility to develop their employees in the process of building their companies: to make the company more competitive, to help solve problems, to encourage innovatively, and to be able to adapt to change. Therefore, great leaders must spend time, energy, and their own personal capital in asking measured questions which will help in developing skills, abilities, and the self-confidence of their staff and employees. Investments by leaders in these areas will help staff and employees perform their current jobs better, prepare them for higher-level positions, and contribute to the overall success of the company.
Leaders can enhance the skills and abilities of their employees by:
- Asking the employee to present “possible answers” to appropriate questions they have posed to the leader, rather than answering them outright.
- Anticipating when a question will need to be answered and then asking said question of key employees at the correct time.
- Understanding when an issue or concern is not being fully evaluated and asking questions of the employee(s) which will broaden their viewpoint or perspective on that issue.
- Asking questions which will help employees unlock ideas and solutions based upon their own experiences and background, allowing them to buy into those solutions, and helping them to build their confidence in the process.
- Asking questions which will help employees prioritize their actions.
- Asking questions which will help employees view a problem from the standpoint of other divisions of the company or other employees impacted by the problem.
- Asking subordinates to justify their statements or stance with facts and numbers rather than feelings and beliefs.
- Asking employees to help find solutions to complicated and/or difficult situations the company is facing.
In understanding what questions might need to be asked, leaders must know what their business niche is, where it is going, and how their business model fits into the larger market scheme. They need to anticipate when changes might be on the horizon within their industry. They must stay in touch with potential changes in consumer demands. They should keep track of national economic trends and how they might impact their bottom-line situation. They must also stay in touch with what is happening on the sales room floor, in the factory, or at the warehouse.
The goal of asking questions may include trying to focus employees on:
Company mission, goals, and objectives.
Customer service and satisfaction.
Product quality and/or price.
Current priorities and away from distractions.
Finding the root cause of their issue.
Strengthening company culture.
Improving the company bottom-line.
Building buy-in on decisions needed.
Building the future of the company.
Dealing with change.
Dealing with conflict.
Unlocking their ability to find their own solutions to problems.
Developing their self-esteem and sense of self-worth (value) within the company.
Growing within their position and potential future positions.
To gain the greatest value, leaders must learn to ask questions of their employees at the correct time and in the proper situation. Leaders should pose questions to those employees which hold insight into a specific issue. The correct time to ask a question is when you can be proactive on an issue rather than reactive to a problem created by that issue. The best place to ask a question is in the location which will result in the greatest chance for success in finding the best answer. In certain situations, it might be in a private one-on-one chat. For others, it might mean in a group setting where the question can be discussed by several people. In certain cases, it might be next to the assembly line machine which is constantly breaking down and needs to be modified to remedy the problem. This question needs to be posed to the engineer who designed/installed it in the first place, their boss, and the employees using the machine.
Three questions, relating to a hypothetical Midwest regional chain of truck stops, are presented to illustrate a few of the concepts above:
- To engage employees with a question linked to the bottom-line, an owner might ask: “Should we consider adding self-checkout lanes in our convenience stores, like big-box stores have done, to reduce the costs of employing checkers?” (Issues involved: possible increases in theft rates; the cost to install more security cameras; the costs of programming and tracking of in-store produced, non-barcoded products, such as soda pop, coffee, or hot dogs; and the cost and remodeling involved with installing new self-checkout lanes.)
- To encourage employees to contribute to the future direction of the company, an owner might ask: “If in ten years, 50% of all trucks on the freeways will be autonomous, how will this impact the services we will need to be providing to our historic customers in the trucking industry?” (Responses might include: adding shop trucks and technicians capable of analyzing problems, and then repairing, the computers operating those autonomous trucks out on the highway when they breakdown. Adding tractor trailer wrecker services and increasing the size of their traditional truck repair service shops. This would allow them to bring disabled trucks (both autonomous and human-operated) back to their facilities to complete needed mechanical repairs and thus better utilize the space available on their properties as the direct result of lower autonomous truck visitation rates.)
- To solicit ideas and react to change, an owner might ask: “If those 50% of autonomous trucks are no longer stopping at our stations, how could we modify our business model to replace lost revenues?” (Responses might include: changing the model to encourage more automobiles to stop at their stations, adding services such as full-scale restaurants – versus just fast food, looking into providing services needed by the local communities, and/or adding motels to their footprint.)
Leaders must make the decision to ask appropriate questions in their efforts to resolve issues, develop their employees, make the company better, and to improve the company bottom-line. It is their responsibility to lead the company and its employees into the future. If a leader’s goals are to have their employees fully engaged and willing to help move the company to the top of their industry, then that leader must know how to use great, discerning questions, at the appropriate time, to capture and utilize the creative genius of those employees.