01 April 2012

Becoming An Inquiring Leader

Those who succeed in top management do so in part by knowing how to ask the right questions. This discipline is often associated with strategy development, problem-solving, product launches, and competitive analysis.  

Asking probing questions, with purpose, is a habit acquired through practice, and the formulation of questions is more art than science.  

Getting started

Inquiries begin with a two-part question:  What do we need to know, and why? 

A basis for engaging in this form of communication comes from a curious mind--which may explain why so few initiate these types of discussions.  It's easier to "tell" than to "ask," even though at certain times telling or explaining a point of view is the appropriate thing to do.

In going through our library recently, I came across the book, Leadership Is An Art, by Max DePree.  Mr. DePree, a son of the founder of the office furniture company, Herman Miller, D. J. DePree, is also a former CEO of the company and served as a board member until 1995.  

I heard Mr. DePree speak at a conference.  His skillful approach to mentoring direct reports, and teaching them how to learn, grow, and change is simple yet profound. What's his secret?  Some of it has to do with asking thoughtful questions.

His best-selling book is the source of the oft-quoted line, "The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality." To complete the thought, here is the rest of DePree's thesis: "The last is to say thank you. The leader must become a servant and debtor between the two. That sums up the progress of an artful leader."

Like most who find their way to the top, Max DePree, discovered early on that communication was essential to the task of leadership. Toward the end of his signature book, DePree underscores the idea of two-way communication by listing questions asked of Herman Miller's senior managers. 

I took the liberty of clustering his "need to know" in the following outline:

  • Who are you?  How do you see yourself personally, professionally, and organizationally?
  • What do you want to do (to be)? What are you planning to do about it?
  • What have you abandoned?
  • What significant areas are there in the company where you feel you can make a difference but cannot get a hearing?
  • Do you have any feelings of failure in any particular area?
  • What will you do in the coming year to develop your three highest-potential persons (and who are they)?
  • In the past year, what, from the perspective of integrity, most affected you personally, professionally, and organizationally?
  • What are a few of the things that you expect most and need most from the CEO?
  • What two things should we do to work toward becoming a great company?
  • What significant areas are there in the company where you feel you can make a difference but cannot get a hearing?
  • Does Herman Miller (insert your company) need you?
  • Do you need Herman Miller (insert your company)?
  • If you were "in my shoes (CEO)," what would you focus on?
  • What are three signals of impending entropy (disorder in the system) you see at Herman Miller?  What are you doing about it?
  • What are three examples of budding synergy in your area and how can we capitalize on them?
Is inquiry a part of your team-building efforts?  Do you know your people and what they're thinking?

Perhaps we could add to the Ancient Greek aphorism, "know thyself," the importance of making time to know others as Max DePree did during his successful career.  

After all, results depend on who your associates are as well as what they do.  


© Bredholt & Co.