Good Question – Great Question

What if we asked more questions?

I am reading a book by Warren Berger called A More Beautiful Question.  In it he shares a study from the Right Question Institute tracking kids use of questions over time that identified a trend of students using questions less as reading and writing skills increased.  The use of questions peaks at around the age of 3, and by the age of 18 it is only used 1/3 as often as reading or writing.

From 2009 A Nation's Report Card.
From 2009 A Nation’s Report Card.

For parents, you are probably not surprised because you have lived through the WHY stage of three year olds and the grunting teenager.

This fascinates me, because I see this in adults as I work with leaders in their development and those that have gone through a career transition.  Too often EGO gets in the way of building the relationships needed to be successful in their next role.  One sign of EGO is the need to tell vs ask.  Think of that – I can read/write/Google (i.e. Figure it out) = EGO response to not knowing something.  As leaders, we battle our EGO overtaking us by leveraging the knowledge of our team to solve problems.  I believe one of the most important skills to battle EGO for adults/leaders is to learn is the ability to ask questions AND listen for the answer.  We do that by mastering the use of GREAT Questions over GOOD Questions.  Here are some examples:

GOOD Question:  Have you considered x and y as solutions?   GREAT Question:  What other solutions did you explore?

GOOD Question:  Why did this happen?   GREAT Question:  What has to happen next to make this problem go away?

GOOD Question:  How was your weekend?    GREAT Question:  What one word would you use to describe your weekend?  (What is the story behind that word?)

GOOD Question:  What do you want to share with the group before we start our meeting?       GREAT Question:  What is one personal best and one professional best you have to share with us?

My basic rule is to always start questions with What or How – that does not always make you perfect, but it makes you closer to perfect.  It is also important to be ready with – tell me a little more about that? or Tell me a little bit more about what options you considered?  Then listen.  The metric for you is to have a ratio of questions to statements of 5 to 1.

Hopefully you have already answered the question What if we asked more questions? 🙂

Relationships or Performance?

When relationships matter, process trumps outcome

As leaders, we are measured largely by outcomes.  Did the work get done?  Was the margin there?  Yet there is a process that helps us achieve those outcomes that does call into question what we believe is most important?

In my work with growing companies I have learned to ask the question “What is your funding source – debt/cash flow, private equity, or venture capital?”  I can usually feel the difference, but ask just to make sure. When speed and growth/returns are so critical (latter two), then generally outcome trumps process.

Your talent strategy should reflect your belief in what is most important in your business.  This is also not about a good and bad labeling exercise.  Those words tend to stop a conversation and start an argument.  I use effective and not-effective, because it forces us to remember the outcomes we wanted in the beginning.  If our goal is 30% EBITDA growth and a few leaders get burned out and leave, maybe that is okay.  Fast growing companies need to be great at bringing in leaders/personalities that will figure it out and be successful.  That needs to be there #1 focus.

You see, the other edge to this sword is building trust.  Peter Drucker once said “The existence of trust does not necessarily mean they like one another, it means they understand one another.”  As a leader, just be clear with your beliefs and lead accordingly.  Actions need to align with beliefs, so people can see consistency in your approach.  You also need to continue to ask yourself “Are the results in my business and my team are proving my methods effective or not effective?”

I love having this conversation with leaders, because is revealing and it matters.  It also helps people define their own path to increasing their own capacity to lead.  That is a process I can get excited about.

When relationships matter, process trumps outcome

**If you want to dive into this topic a little deeper, chapter 2 in my book outlines what I call the OBN (Ought But Not) Leader.  On Amazon.

Jackhammers and Leadership

I learned a very valuable leadership lesson when I was 19.  I was working as a laborer on a curb repair crew for the summer.  Part of the job was breaking up the old curbs using a jackhammer.  I remember the first time I was asked to operate it I was very excited – it was loud, dirty, and made me feel very manly.  I received the instructions from my crew chief, and off I went to break up 100ft of curb.  After 5 minutes I started to feel weak and I was sweating profusely.  After 10 minutes I was light headed and almost ready to throw up when I had to stop. It was then I noticed the whole crew standing back laughing at me as they saw the fatigue and nausea overtake me.  When I shut the jackhammer off, my crew chief came over and gave me my first leadership lesson.

“Kid, you have to learn to let the jackhammer do the work.  When you learn to work with it and not try and control it, then you really get work done.”

That summer I gradually learned to let the jackhammer do the work, and as I look back on that day, I realize how it was a lesson for every important role I would ever have – leader, husband, parent, friend, and facilitator.

As I work with new leaders – The biggest mistake I see new leaders make is to over-manage their teams and not focus on setting clear goals and working to remove the things that are getting in the way of their people.  Leadership is exhausting if you opt for total control vs working with it.

As I lead entrepreneurs and their leadership teams through a process to build a strategy and culture focused on performance – I have to stand back and let them work through the change, learn what works for them, and struggle with growing up as a team.  They have to delegate the work that will allow them to lead more effectively.  I have to be patient and persistent.  If either of us tries to do too much for others, it will exhaust us and the effort will not be successful.

In my work as a coach – If I go into a coaching session trying to guess the answers ahead of time and force knowledge into my coachee – it is exhausting.  When I go in with the intent of being present and working through the process of coaching with a coachee, they leave with the strength of conviction and ownership, and I leave amazed at the work that gets done when I am present and allow space for exploration.

As a parent of teenagers – If I go into conversations armed with the intent that I will convince them they are wrong and I am right, it usually ends with tears and loud voices.  If I am patient and work on listening and drawing out what is on their mind and gather their reflections on the event, it does not alway end in a hug with music playing in the background, but it generally ends with energy in reserve for us to work on the next challenge or to celebrate the next victory.

Kid, you have to let the jackhammer do the work.  Leader, you have to let your people do the work.

Coach/Leader, you have to listen well and draw out the reality and possibilities from your partners in performance.

Dad, you have to let your daughter grow up a little, and feel loved on their journey.

Friend, sometimes you just have to sit there and listen, because you can’t cure the cancer, fix the marriage, or bring their child back to life.

What are you challenged with today that you have to learn to let the jackhammer do the work?

Lead well – in whatever role you take on today.

Becoming Adaptable

Are you adaptable?

I am reminded of a conversation I had with Greg Hartle who spent 18 months doing something I thought was crazy.  He started with $10 and a laptop and travelled around the US meeting people in transition and helping them.  He blogged about it, took odd jobs when he could, and spoke to groups about his journey (fyi – before his trip he almost died from kidney failure – so there was quite a story there).

One observation he made was that the key ability he saw as critical to the people he was meeting in career transitions was the ability to learn, unlearn, and relearn.  For me, it was a simple, yet profound statement as I work with organizations and leaders in growth transitions.  Here are two thoughts . . .

1.  It does not mean abandon your values and beliefs.  Adaptable is ‘able to change or be Are you adaptable?  Success in business and in life means understanding and managing the changes that approach.  Transitions as leaders, parents, spouses, friends are full of moments where the current way of doing things/reacting will not work, and we have to ask ourselves – in order to fit or work better in some situation or for some purpose.’  If you have to work for an organization with a social focus – great!  If we are being asked to build a process around sales so others can do what we do and do it the same way and we resist – hmm?

2. It does mean that when we find ourselves stuck or frustrated, the first question we need to ask is “What about this situation frustrates me?”  At the core of our answer is the issue, and in my experience most often the issue is in our recognition of the change and how we will have to adapt to operate in the new normal.

One habit that helps this – When entering change conversations – once we process the issue and the end goal, to simply ask “To be successful, what do we need to: Keep doing? Start doing?  Stop doing?”

As a person – I go back to Greg’s observation – “Based on what challenges I face – What do I need to: Learn?  Unlearn? Relearn?”


Never Start With Do

Last week I had the privilege of delivering a 3.5 day leadership training to a group of emerging leaders.  One of the things I cherish about new leaders is their hunger for learning, and it is infectious.  Great conversations start with a question – that is my mantra.  Our time together was structured around questions and each learner had a learning log in the form of a poster that they put on the wall.  It turned out to be an amazing way to watch the journey of 20 different leaders as the answered questions like:

  • What is your definition of leadership?
  • What makes your job critical to this organization?
  • What are my strengths?
  • What skills/knowledge do I already possess?
  • What capacity do I need to build as a leader?

Our time ended with action plans and I heard many of the same things – I need to go DO . . . . .

My one piece of advice is always make your first DO = self observation, not DO = practice the behavior.  Here is why.  In my new book I talk about the OBN leader(Ought But Not) and the trap of thinking you are doing things in a way that are most effective for your people.  Just taking time to watch yourself in the situations where you think you are being an effective leader will help you test your belief.

For example, one leader mentioned that she realized through observing herself in an active listening exercise we did in class that spending 3 minutes (even 30 seconds) listening to someone was impossible because her mind started to swirl with how to fix their problem.  For her practice, I advised her spend a week watching herself in listening situations and practicing active listening to see what she did well and where she struggled the most.  At the end of each day email herself what she experienced and how her capacity to be present with others showed up for her.

Then – set a goal (that is SMART) and enlist the support you need to be successful.  This includes asking one person to serve as an accountability/feedback person for you.

It is that simple, but never that easy.  I get that.  It is powerful to watch people ignited by learning, and when individuals start owning their learning it is cause for celebration.

The moment I knew the learning was working was when 3 leaders formed a group to read Crucial Conversations together, with the goal of increasing their capacity to manage conflict.  It was priceless!

What are your answers to the questions I posed above?

At its core, talent management is about great conversations.  Go have one.


When we don’t react, and Listen

Great conversations start with a question.  As a regular reader, you probably are tiring of hearing this statement from me.

A friend reminded me yesterday of a lesson she was re-learning with her kids.  They were testing her with statements meant to shock her, and while her impulse was to react, her intuition told her to take a deep breath and simply say “Tell me a little bit more about that?”  Then keep breathing and listen.

She also reminded me that I taught her that through watching me facilitate a group.  I was flattered, and also secretly glad she did not follow me around as a parent. 🙂

The goal is never to mask what you are thinking and be seen as a Teflon person who is never rattled.  The real goal (and my intent when I do it as a facilitator)  is to delay reaction until more is learned.

Here are two methods I have designed this kind of listening into key conversations I encourage leaders to have:

  1. Performance conversations:  What are 3 things you want to accomplish with this review?
  2. One-on-ones:  What is energizing you right now?  What is frustrating you right now? What do you want to make sure we cover today?

It is important for you, as a leader, to remain calm and focus on understanding before reacting.  Certainly, there is a case to be made that the words Fire or a gunshot going off demands a quick response.  Yet those who are professionals in responding to such events are trained to assess even as they react.  Leaders need to learn that – and it begins with having the discipline to ask a couple of questions to lead them past the emotion to the core reasons they are making that statement.  Behind a reason is a need, and leading with their needs in mind is what leaders do when they actually care.

Put another way, to care is to listen.

Great conversations start with a question.  Questions put us, as leaders, in the position of listening.  Listening is good, and remember to breathe.


What Leaders Do – To Serve

What is a leader?

What does a leader DO?

How do I become the leader that I aspire to be?

Great conversations start with a question.  Becoming a leader requires someone to ask the three questions posed above, and then commit to the work of making the beliefs you have about leadership show up in the habits and skills you develop as a leader.

Six months ago I started a journey with a group of leaders in their field to launch a program designed to help a leader explore these questions, and start DOing the work of being a leader.  The group is called LeaderWork, and we are actually launching a year long leadership development program through our local university (Grand Valley State University).  If you are interested in learning more, here is a link .

One answer to this that is a core belief of mine and shared by the rest of our group – Leaders Serve.

To serve you have to care about the needs and goals of others first.  Not exclusively, but first.

To serve you have to be willing to take time to listen first, and find ways to make the priorities of your people your priorities.

To serve you have to be quick to say I am sorry, because the reality is that things will happen when things people want to do have to be put off for a time because of the needs of the business.  Or you will just forget.

To serve, you have to DO things like:

  1. Getting to know your people at a little deeper level – Why did they join the company?  What do they like about the role?  What are their talents and passions?  What are other ways they can see to contribute?
  2. Let them get to know you – All of the questions in #1 plus things like,  What are my priorities this week?  What keeps me up at night?  What people inspire me?  Why did I become a leader?
  3. Be ready to allow others to help you.  No relationship is healthy if it is only one way, and when we stay open to opportunities for others to help us and for us to help others, good things happen.

What is a leader?

What does a leader DO?

How do I become the leader that I aspire to be?

I believe that if you aspire to be a leader that has great impact, it is critical to start with these questions.

What do you believe?


Ignorant vs Stupid vs Agile

Ignorance is defined ( as lack of knowledge, education, or awareness.  In contrast, the definition of stupid ( is having or showing a lack of ability to learn and understand things.  The fine line between being ignorant and stupid is the ability to learn.

Taking that one step further, in research done by Michael Lombardo and Robert Eichinger they identified one competency common to all people that became successful leaders – learning agility.  It is defined as the ability and willingness to learn from experience, and subsequently apply that learning to perform successfully under new or first-time conditions.  People with this quality fail, but don’t normally fail multiple times on the same issue and find a way to apply learning from the past to new situations so they can find success.

I also recognize that some lack the ability to learn certain things, and yet I have dozens of examples from clients who work with people with disabilities or special needs that have seen learning happen because they raised their expectations of those individuals and stopped treating them like the labels that had been put on them were permanent.

There is not test for learning agility, but there are some practices that allow people to share their capacity and willingness to learn.  You know my mantra – Great conversations start with a question.  When we have honest conversations that lead to thoughtful actions, the outcome is improved performance.  That is learning agility in action.   Here are some questions that test for it:

For yourself:

  • What do I want to learn this year?
  • What did I learn this past week / month / year?   Did I do it  the easy way (someone helped me) or the hard way?

For individuals:

In One-on-One:

  • What were recent successes and failures?
  • What do you need to learn faster?  What support do you need?

In Performance Conversation:

  • What did you do well this past year?
  • What could you do better?
  • What do you need to learn?

In the end, there is no difference to a leader from those who don’t have the ability and those who do not want to demonstrate the ability.  All organizations have these individuals, and hopefully do not have too many of them.  The latter reason is the most prevalent from my experience.

Sometimes I wonder if removing labels from our politically correct society soften feedback to the point that it is hard to hear.  Maybe we should use the words ignorant and stupid more to help people see their options more clearly.  People with learning agility will see the challenge in the direct feedback.  People without it will be offended – at least we would know who is who.

Inviting the Voice of Ownership

I remember the conversation vividly.  His call came two weeks after my Situational Leadership class and his frustration was evident.

I am asking all the questions you gave us in the training, but they are not giving me any answers.   The How can I support you? question is just creating awkward silence, when I know they are buried and complaining.  I feel like that training was a waste of time.

That conversation was over a decade ago, and started me on a quest to better support leaders and those they lead in having more meaningful conversations.

So here is my response after years of working with other leaders and individuals in this space.

1.  Be patient – The lens of a leader is generally one where they see themselves as nice and approachable, so not answering questions confuses them.  Too often, people do not see them as approachable.  I can think back to an extremely approachable leader I was working with, and the feedback from her team was She is so busy, I hate to bother her with my problems.  Her approachability was impacted by people liking her too much and not wanting to bother her.

Her fault?  No.

Her problem?  Yes.

Creating the space and continuing to share WHY you believe this time is important is the step to focus on.

2.  Look for opportunities to DO support – Talking about support is one thing, but people need proof.  Your best people will only need a little proof.  Your lowest performers will need a lot of proof.  Focus your time and energy on your best people, and continue to provide evidence of your commitment and INVITE your other team members to join the performance conversation.

Notice I did not say try to convince them of your commitment.  People have to make their own choices, and you need to focus on what you control which is your actions and keeping what you are thinking in the OPEN part of the Johari Window.  (see my video to hear about the JoHari Window)

3.  Be patient, and celebrate your successes.

Summer can be a good time to re-start relationships because people are relaxed and have lots of things to talk about.  Use this time to build relationships and invite people into more meaningful conversations about their future and the future of your business.

Just don’t get bogged down by the people that do not want to go there.

If you are interested – here is a presentation I created to support individuals in managing their own career and performance.  A full whitepaper is available on request – just ask.

Just Add Fear – Is this a line in your Leadership Recipe?

Do you ever intentionally try and scare your people?  Is it a tool you use in your leadership toolbox?

Let me rephrase that:

  • Have you ever initiated changes without an adequate explanation  to anyone why the change is important?
  • Do you go long periods of time without bringing the team together to celebrate wins of the past and talk about what the focus is for the future?
  • Does your travel schedule dictate how often you bring your team together?
  • Do customer needs always trump team communication/gatherings?
  • Do you allow months to pass without giving people feedback on their work and asking what support they need?
  • Do you let people hole up in their cubicles and just work for hours/days on end?
  • Do you celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, births, and show up at funerals for your people and their families?

The hands on work of leaders, the habits we commit to say everything about our leadership.  Fear is like water, it always finds it’s way into where it should not be and the damage starts without us knowing about it.  Any builder will tell you that creating a 100% waterproof house is impossible, but building well and adequately venting things will help us avoid major damage.  My experience tells me in any new building you wait for the first heavy rain and watch closely for those things that are not built well.  Leaks will show up.  They are always there. Some tips – Don’t start with the question – What is everyone afraid of today?  Here are some questions that will help you watch for/listen for fear:

  • What questions are hanging out there that need answers?
  • What should be our top 3 priorities for the next 6 months?
  • Where are you making progress?  Where are you stuck?  What support do you need to get unstuck?

Listen for confusion or emotions that will distract from our ability to solve problems and work together.  Those are the slow leaks of fear filling up the space in our heads that we need to use for thinking and reasoning to do our best work. Great conversations start with a question.  When it works, we have honest conversations, leading to thoughtful actions, and improved performance.  Fear is always looking to creep in and it will, just develop the habits that does not allow it to stay for long. When we do it well, we allow fear a voice, and we create conditions that don’t allow it to stay long.

To build great culture you have to give fear a voice, and also not give it a place to stay.