Practice #10: Ask Powerful Questions

Practice #10: Ask Powerful Questions


Leaders need to assume responsibility for making change happen— both in themselves and in the people around them. Change means making a personal choice. Given that fact, leaders must learn how to communicate in new ways: rather than simply direct people, they must learn to ask powerful questions.

  • “What is the change you want to make?”
  • “How can you put these practices into action?”
  • “What stands in your way?”
  • “How will you measure your success?”

By asking powerful questions, leaders can harness the power of self-reflection and help people assume full responsibility to build a leadership culture.

Ask Powerful Questions

In the last nine chapters I’ve talked about how to build a leadership culture. I’ve argued that the twin levers of trust and spark work together to generate the highest levels of trust, productivity, and innovation. I’ve argued that by focusing on these practices, you can create a culture where everyone runs it like they own it.

In Chapter 10, I talk about a tenth practice—one that will help you translate these practices into your own organization. It focuses on one of the most important tools of communication: the well-framed question. This final chapter is where we talk about the language of listening and how you can use these ideas to make a shift in how the people around you operate as leaders. This final chapter is all about making these changes real, starting with you.

Let’s begin by talking about the process of personal change. It involves three big steps:

  • Assume responsibility for things and for making them better.
  • Become aware of your behaviors and how they contribute.
  • Commit to change, with specific steps to put into action.

These seemingly simple steps convey the essence of what you need to do to begin the process of change. Though seemingly simple, their power flows from the fact that they require you to explore yourself in ways that might lead to some surprising discoveries.

Create Real, Meaningful Change

Chapter 6 focused on practices that enable your organization to keep pace with change. It stressed that in today’s business environment, the pace of change is accelerating, and that it’s a leader’s job to use learning loops to help people embrace continuous, accelerating change. Now we’re talking about helping people change their individual habits. We know that the key is asking powerful questions. But the question is: Who will ask those questions? Who starts the ball rolling? Where do we begin?

The answer, faithful reader, is that we begin with you. You’re the one who now understands these practices. You are the one who now understands how to help people assume responsibility. The tenth and final practice is for you to create a new role for yourself in your organization. Combined with the other nine practices, this is the culmination of the leadership equation. This is how you start building a leadership culture.

For each of the ten practices, there are powerful questions you can ask. To help you get started, here are the ones with the most impact:

1. Align the Core Values

“What would happen if everyone in our company shared a deep understanding of our company’s core values—and lived up to those core values every day? What if everyone participated regularly in discussing the meaning of our core values and how to better translate them into practice? What specifically might that do to improve our effectiveness as an organization? What conflicts might it resolve?”

2. Sharpen the Focus

“What would happen if our entire organization were united around a common vision? What would happen if we truly focused on achieving a few major priorities? What would that do for our performance? What conflicts would it resolve?”

3. Lead Through Others

“What if we focused on getting the right people into the right roles each and every time? What would happen if we had a consistent approach to teamwork—and what it means to be both a team leader and a team member? What if we had operating principles that helped people identify and address conflicts quickly? What if trust were pervasive and fear was unknown in our company? What would we have to do to achieve that kind of culture?”

4. Manage Decisions Well

“What would it be like if everyone in our company understood what decision-making authority was delegated to them? What if everyone in the company felt empowered to suggest ideas and suggest change? How would it be if we were crystal clear about how we were making a given decision? What would it be like if our board and our CEO were clear on their respective authorities?”

5. Start With Yourself

“What if every manager and leader in our company demonstrated humor and humility? What if everyone consistently behaved honorably and with heartfelt passion for what they do? What if everyone communicated with an affirming intention and acute awareness of different styles of communication? How would that change our culture?”

6. Accelerate the Pace of Change

“What would happen if we had performance metrics tied to every major business product and service we offer? What if the information related to those metrics was shared immediately with people at the front lines? What if we empowered people to suggest ideas for improvement—and accepted their ideas nine times out of ten? What if we embraced continuous improvement as part of our day-to-day work? How would that affect our performance?”

7. Stimulate the Creative Flow

“What would happen if we tapped into people’s creativity more often? What if we were more aware of the things that each person most enjoys doing? What would happen if people were free to collaborate across departments? What would happen if we created incentives for people to experiment and try things without anyone looking over their shoulders or prematurely judging them?”

8. Spread Systems Thinking

“How do we create value in our organization? What would happen if everyone in our organization understood those systems? What if everyone thought more about our business as a system and appreciated the full consequences of their decisions? What if everyone heard from their customers more frequently (both internal and external customers)? How might that affect our company’s performance?”

9. Multiply the Communication

“What would happen if we had ten times the amount of communication up, down, and across our organization? What would it be like if information flowed quickly from those who have it to those who need it? What would happen if we communicated more regularly with our customers and other outside stakeholders? How would that affect our performance?”

10. Ask Powerful Questions

“What would it be like if everyone in the company assumed responsibility for asking powerful questions. What would happen if everyone then asked what it would take to make that happen, and how we would measure success? What would we have to do differently? How could we build that kind of culture?”

Conclusion

Effective leaders create a culture in which people strive to improve themselves. In this chapter, we learned that the journey of personal growth begins with three steps: (1) accepting responsibility, (2) becoming aware of your behaviors, and (3) committing to change. Because accepting responsibility involves making a personal choice, effective leaders focus on creating cultures in which people ask powerful questions of each other. Because it is difficult to become aware of your behaviors on your own, effective leaders encourage people to find coaches and mentors.

But being an agent of change also means understanding the dynamics of organizational change. Effective leaders use powerful questions to engage people and get them to assume responsibility for new ways of thinking, acting, and behaving. When a leader asks powerful questions and listens attentively, powerful ideas emerge. When hundreds of people from all different levels of the organization come together and talk seriously about the ways they want the company to improve, the energy and momentum can last for years.

When everyone engages in this kind of powerful listening, the result is the highest levels of trust and spark.

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