A Question of Leadership

A Question of Leadership

Published 24th November 2015
Krish Iyer

Founder and Chief Catalyst at Qua Aliter Associates

Published 24th November 2015

This article looks at the lost art of questioning in leadership. How should and can leaders re-build their “questioning” faculty, rather than resorting to their comfort zone impulse of “telling”, and more so in the emerging Asian context is examined.

The sage of management thinking, Peter Drucker, once said “The leader of the past was a person who told; the leader of the future will be a person who asks”. He is said to have opened all his business meetings with CEOs who sought his wisdom and insights, with five simple, yet profound questions:

  1. What is your mission?
  2. Who is your customer?
  3. What does your customer value?
  4. What results do you seek?
  5. What is your plan?

A few simple yet profound questions. And that’s what I’d like to shed some light on – the lost leadership skill of questioning. Especially in Asia. Why we need to tap back into that resource. And how.

Asia has no lack of traditions around the acquisition and imparting of great wisdom, many of which have long supported the meaningful growth of society and civilizations. Whether it be the Zen masters in Japan, the Taoist sages from China, to the saints and Rishis in the Indian subcontinent, the path to wisdom has always involved the learner uncovering this wisdom for himself or herself by a series of discussions, reflection, introspection and often, debate. But the spark setting the minds alight has always been a deep, profound and often paradoxical question. The Zen practice of engaging through kōan is perhaps one of the best examples of this. The popular western understanding sees kōan as referring to an unanswerable question or a meaningless statement. However, in Zen practice, a kōan is not meaningless, and not a riddle or a puzzle. Zen teachers do expect students to present an appropriate response when asked about a kōan.

With the development and growth spurt that Asia has seen ever since the end of WWII, and through to China’s rise as the foremost economy in the world, questioning as a leadership and managerial skill, seems to have taken a back seat. Quite practically so, one might argue, since the decades of unprecedented growth across Asia favored leadership practices that were more directive in nature, and focused on delivering goods and services with the highest efficiency and productivity. More, faster, cheaper was the operating mantra.

The previous and familiar directive style no longer seems to deliver the results of the past. Old rules no longer apply, and new business models evolve every single day. Take a look around - we live in a world where the largest hotel company in the world owns no property, the largest transportation company owns no fleet, and the largest media company in the world creates no content. And if you’re guessing – that’s Airbnb, Uber and Facebook respectively.

And then there are the millennials—the digital natives—who grew up with Google. Who, with the power of the internet, collaborative social networks and access to the world’s best information sources, potentially have all the answers, provided they know the right questions to ask. And are asked the right questions by their managers and leaders.

Which takes us back to what Mr. Drucker said – the leaders of the future therefore will need to master the art and science of asking meaningful and profound questions and will need to clamp down on their instinct to tell and direct the workforce of today and the future.

A CEO's questions

I recently had a most engaging conversation with the Japanese CEO of one of the world’s best-known food manufacturing companies, and happened to ask her how her leadership style has evolved to cope with the brave new volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world. And her answer was pretty direct: “There is no way that I can know all the answers about everything all the time, so I find myself asking more questions, than in previous decades.” I probed a little further, and she graciously shared with me that she now tends to lead conversations with her executives and extended team with a series of five elegantly framed questions that seem to serve her well across situations and contexts:

  1. What's happening?
  2. So, what is your thinking about this?
  3. What does it mean for us? What is the impact?
  4. How do we respond? What action do we take?
  5. How can I help you?

I didn’t have the opportunity to dig deeper, but the CEO was, in those first four questions, knowing or unknowingly using a very effective focused-conversation framework, known as ORID (Objective, Reflective, Interpretative and Decisional), which refers to the types of questions that one would ask to guide an individual from situation to action. As the Japanese CEO was so effectively doing.

O or objective questions identify objective facts relevant to the topic. The key question is: what do we know about this? (The what of the issue)

R or reflective questions are about how people feel about the topic. They are about subjective perceptions. The key question is: how do we feel about this? (The then whats)

I or Interpretative questions have to do with meaning. The key question of the interpretive stage is this: what does it mean for me/you/the organisation etc.? (The so whats)

D or Decisional questions build on the information coming from the three previous stages of questioning, this is the stage where a decision is produced and action triggered. The key question at the decisional stage is: What are we going to do? (The now whats)

The ORID engagement framework works well in 1:1 and team meetings to move through a topic; examining a topic; diverging on to impact, meaning and options; and then converging back into the decisions and actions that the team and organisation needs to take to create results.

The reason ORID is a powerful conversational framework is because it aligns with the way adults learn from and through experience. That is, as adults, we tend to move from having a concrete experience (characterised by relatively direct and observable data), to reflecting on that experience (noticing how the external experience affects us), followed by abstracting the lessons learned and then acting on the newly acquired insights.

The fifth question

From the CEO's list, the fifth question, “How can I help you?” deserves a special focus. It is, in itself a great testament to the skills of an astute and evolved leader. In those five simple words, the CEO has conveyed, with empathy and authenticity, the following subtle messages.

  • I trust you to do the right thing
  • You are empowered to act
  • I am here to support and guide you as you need

Very much in the lines of the age-old Zen kōan tradition of energising the individual and team to take initiative and go beyond the ordinary.

So how does a leader use questions to engage an organisation and team? How is this crucial skill honed and advanced to ask powerful, insightful and energising questions? Perhaps the best way to is to run ORID on one’s personal leadership style. Here are four simple questions to think about how questions are used in day-to-day leadership:

  1. What are the questions that I'm most comfortable asking my team/subordinates? Do I tend to typically "tell" more than "ask"?
  2. What are the top three areas that I think I can enhance with effective and powerful questions?
  3. What would this change mean for my organisation, my team and myself? How would it help?
  4. What are the questions that I commit to asking as part of my daily work practice?

Questions, when framed, placed and presented well, are clearly the bedrock of leadership. Here’s wishing you all the best in your successful leadership journey though the future.

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