When I left the corporate world and first started my practice, I was a management consultant (as opposed to my present practice as an executive coach). Early on, I was advised by my mentor that it would be a good thing if I found out why people decided to engage our services. That is, to make sure I not only discovered what the customer felt we could do better, but why they hired us in the first place. There are and were many good consultants, so why did you choose us?
What was interesting to me was that just about everyone I asked had some version of the same answer, “You knew the right questions to ask.” At first that threw me a bit. It became clear as time went on, that the reason that was significant is because insightful questions highlight the assumptions we’re making. At first, I thought being knowledgeable about the business is what allowed someone to ask the right questions. So the potential client felt I knew about the details of their business. To some extent, that is also true. But the most insightful questions didn’t require business knowledge but rather knowledge of human nature and a general understanding of complex systems.
After more than a dozen years at this, the ability to ask questions has taken on even more dimensions. Asking questions creates space for the other person to speak, keeping the focus on them. Questions allow them to find their own answer or discover the holes in their knowledge which is inevitably more profound than what I might offer. They are the experts in their business and personal lives and the coach or consultant is there to facilitate them finding the right path.
As I shifted over to coaching, one of the things I found most difficult was NOT providing answers at some point. As a consultant, I asked many questions for the purpose of defining the issue in my own mind. Then my goal was, based on my experience, to provide a suggested path to a solution. After all, when a client hires a consultant, they have the expectation that they are hiring a domain expert. As a coach, I avoid that last step. I try very hard (admittedly not always successfully) to simply continue to ask questions until the mentee realizes her/his own solution. The only expertise I should be expected to have is helping you find your answer.
In other posts, we have pointed out that one of the most important tasks for today’s business leaders is the development of their people. Asking questions instead of giving orders or directions is an excellent way to demonstrate to your employees that they are expected to think for themselves. Consultants and trainers can be hired to fill in the technical competency gaps. But development of leaders is the executive’s responsibility. In my mind, to question is the answer as to how the people development task is most effectively and efficiently accomplished. How about you? What are your thoughts? Do you mostly ask questions or do you mostly give direction and orders?