CO2 Partners | Good Leaders Ask Questions More Often Than They Answer Them

June 14, 2023

At CO2 Partners, we believe that great leaders ask questions more often than they give answers. Learn how to break out of the mental mold and tap into the 75% of questions you are not asking with our leadership guidance. Unlock your true potential with us.

I need to restructure my business — Im thinking of eliminating my acquisitions team,” said the CEO of a large professional services firm. Like many of the CEOs whom I coach, he was anxious in this pandemic and had a hard time thinking of any other question other than, How do I cut costs?

The complexity of our current crisis is clearly overwhelming many leaders, who havent adjusted to asking new questions that befit the new environment. They are habituated to asking the same types of questions over and over again — since revenues are dropping, how do we reduce unnecessary costs?” — and find it difficult to re-frame the present situation through another lens. 

As I probed deeper into my client’s context, I asked, Whats another way to do acquisitions given the current environment?

He paused for a moment and then said, Oh, we could buy at the bottom — we can take over debt from people who dont want to keep working for another ten years.

And just like that, the direction of the conversation shifted, and the client began excitedly discussing new possibilities. The right question made all the difference.

How do we look at a situation from a new perspective and ask different questions? It doesnt come naturally to most of us. Even outside of crises, most people only ask about 25% of the questions available to us — we get lodged in a particular mental mold. But before we discuss how to break out of that mold and tap into the 75% of questions we aren’t asking, lets first start with the basics: As a leader, are you sure youre asking enough questions in the first place? 

Good Leaders Ask Questions More Often Than They Answer Them

The paradox of leadership is that the reasons why people get promoted into leadership are different from the reasons that they succeed as leaders. People get promoted for having good answers. But once they take the helm, what distinguishes good from bad leaders is not whether they have the answers, but how often they ask questions. I would go as far to say that there is never a situation in which leaders shouldn’t ask questions. 

Ineffective leaders assume they know the answers. They bulldoze their plans through and others, who werent consulted, wind up resisting them — no surprise there. Successful leaders spend 70 to 80 percent of their time asking questions, not answering them. They move decisions as far down the organization as they possibly can and thus cultivate widespread engagement and accountability. That was my conclusion after I conducted around 170 formal and informal interviews with world-renowned leaders, from Walter Isaacson, the former head of CNN, to four-star U.S. general Jack Chain who was responsible for the countrys nuclear arsenals, to Jack Welch, former CEO of G.E. When Chains 10-year-old daughter asked him what he did when he served as a staff officer in the Pentagon, he said, I answer questions.” When, after he was made commander, she asked how his new role would be different, he responded, Now I ask the questions.” And although Welch has been tagged as a hard-nosed” leader, those close to him speak of Welch’s “insatiable curiosity” and his trademark of asking more questions than anyone else in the room.

Good leaders are able to relinquish their ego and give others the chance to flourish — that was the premise of my book, Just Ask Leadership, in 2015. Since then, Ive expanded upon my conclusion. Yes, what distinguishes bad leaders from good ones is how frequently they ask questions, but what distinguishes good leaders from truly great ones is the ability to ask different types of questions and to help others do so as well.

 Great Leaders Ask Different Types of Questions 

If youre hoping for a formula that spells out, All great leaders ask this question…” you might be a bit disappointed with this article. Its far more effective for you to reflect on the kinds of questions youre prone to asking and why that is the case. In working with others, do you tend to

●      Try new ways of taking action immediately and ask, Where should we go from here? How can we do it better?” (Innovator)

●      Assess alternative methods of taking action, such as, Will this help us reach our goal? What will we measure?” (Director)

●      Gather information to evaluate a situation, such as, Is this in alignment with our values, strategy, and goals?” (Judge)

●      Explore new ideas in order to frame a situation, such as, What should be our goal? How else could we think about this?” (Professor)

Each of these leadership styles can be mapped onto two axes, Perspective to Evaluative, and Knowledge to Action, which stems from a leadership model that 4ROI and my company, CO2 Partners, built and tested among a few hundred organizational leaders and HR professionals to ensure it was psychographically valid. 

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