I finally have a few minutes — semi-snowbound here in Evansville — to catch up on old posting themes. Earlier this year I had a chance to do a Q&A with Gary Cohen, author of JUST ASK LEADERSHIP: Why Great Managers Always Ask the Right Questions. Gary is a serial and successful entrepreneur — ACI Telecentrics was his major liquidity event I believe — and he’s currently partner and cofounder of CO2Partners, LLC, operating as an executive coach and consultant.
The book is based on a fundamental insight: As leaders advance, they tend to ask fewer questions and provide more answers. Which is exactly backwards according to Cohen: “Leadership is about allowing others the chance to flourish and you do that by asking questions.”
Luckily, I had the chance to ask Gary a few questions myself. I’ve been struck by the fact that many Crossderry readers are relatively new managers in technology-driven industries. They’re coming from roles where they were rewarded for knowing answers, not asking questions. So I asked Gary: “What do new leaders need to unlearn before they try to use question-based leadership?”
Toddlers and young children are bursting with questions: Where does the water from the faucet come from? Where does it go? Why? Questions are the entry point of most significant learning–because they generally indicate an investment in the answer. But parents and teachers can’t or don’t entertain every question from every child and every student.
As we migrate from lower school to upper school and onto college, answers are rewarded with grades and affirmed by teachers’ reactions. After school, successful employment typically hinges on our specific abilities and knowledge, not how we engage others with questions. Promotions and raises are a product of the work we’ve done, the answers we’ve provided. The result: years and years of conditioned behavior with an emphasis on providing answers, not asking questions.
It’s unrealistic to “unlearn” this behavior immediately upon entering the managerial realm, but the better questions leaders ask and elicit from their coworkers, the more engaged, united, and accountable everyone in the organization will be. When leaders ask open-ended questions, they are often surprised to learn how much their coworkers know and can contribute. Questions, it turns out, are the key to learning new information and unlearning the answer-providing habit!