The door opens and a senior executive walks into my office. She wants to move forward with a recommendation that includes a significant move and she’s worked with two other senior leaders. They have a good plan and she asks if I would support the recommendation. I could say “Yes, that’s great and I’m comfortable with that” but I don’t, instead what’s going through my head are the questions I could ask her so that she is confident that what she is presenting is indeed the best option. To me, leadership is not about someone at the top giving ascent to any one idea, it’s about empowering and expanding the leadership capacity of others. Asking good questions is one way to do this.
What types of questions deepen and broaden the leadership of others? The literature on coaching provides some good guidance. Goldvarg, Matthews, and Perel suggest that good questions:
- Create an impact and move someone to action;
- Take someone to places they haven’t explored before;
- Make connections someone had not previously made; and
- Enable reflection.
Creating the space for good questioning means slowing down and taking a bit of time. Asking
questions causes pause and reflection (Rogers, 2016). Asking someone, if you chose option A, what are the consequences of that choice? Then ask the same for option B. Following with, what other options did you consider? This type of path provides space, reflection and for you as a leader to understand the thinking and exploration of someone who is looking for your support. You get to hear and see their leadership in action. Watching their response, you can also see the confidence they have in their recommendations. A person’s tone, body language, and the words they choose tell you an enormous amount about their comfort with where they are and how they feel about the task at hand.
A simple path for a powerful questioning process is provided by Whittleworth and Gilbert (2009) in the OSCAR model. What Outcome are you seeking? What is the Situation? What Choices are available and what are the consequences of those choices? What Action will you take and how will you Review? Using your own leadership skills, walking someone through this model through questioning takes little time and has an enormous ability to empower others and their leadership.
There are times when people just need a yes or no. Not every conversation is a coaching conversation. However, the next time someone steps through your door and asks for your support on an issue, just a few questions to create space and reflection and to explore an issue more in depth can be well worth it. The role of leaders is to empower others. I think of two questions that I try to ask often and they are:
- What can I do to demonstrate support for your leadership; and
- What information do you need to enable you to make that decision?
Some people may believe that today’s executive is still about the power at the top and a model of hierarchical authoritative leadership. You are only as good as those around you and each time someone walks through your door, or comes to you to ask for support, this is a chance to empower them, support them, and for you to learn about their own leadership in action. Through a thoughtful approach including powerful questions, you can build a broad base of leadership and support and in turn, you may feel less pressure to “be the one.”
For the senior executive who came to me at the outset of this blog, within 5 minutes we had together defined a new option, had a new possibility, and she ran with it from there. I believe it gave her an option that resolved an internal conflict for her and created a new possibility that really was a win-win rather than a compromise which impacted the community in some negative ways. Simple questions, great result, and I get to see a powerful leader feeling supported and empowered. How can that not be good for all?
Gilbert, A., & Whittleworth, K. (2009). The Oscar Coaching Model. Lulu. com.
Goldvarg, D. , Matthews, P., and Perel, N. Professional Coaching Competencies: The Complete Guide. Executive College Press. Arroyo Grande, CA: 2018.
Rogers, J. Coaching Skills: The Definitive Guide to Being a Coach, 4th Ed. Open University Press. Berkshire, England: 2016.