The power of questions

Some years ago, my business partner and I sold our agencies to one of the top three media holding companies, and we ended up taking over another business as part of our deal.  At the time we had agencies in London and New York, as well as getting to know another business, so in hindsight we weren’t able to spend as much time as we would have liked with our original agencies helping our teams to understand the real benefits of our acquisition.

I look back on that time wishing I’d asked more questions rather than make assumptions about how people felt – as one of those people whose glass is half-full rather than half-empty  I assumed everyone felt as positively as I did. Later, our acquirers sent us on a change management course, where I learned that we were a long way further round the change curve than our teams were. Having made the decision to become part of a larger group to expand our footprint and horizons for the best part of 18 months by the time we were acquired, all of our doubts and questions had been answered along the way. I hadn’t understood that everyone else also needed to go through the journey and had their own questions and doubts that couldn’t simply be answered by saying “trust me”.

Sometimes people don’t ask the questions that they really want to know the answer to, either because they’re afraid of the answer, or because they’re worried that just by asking the question they might bias the respondent against them. As leaders, we need to find ways to tease those questions out of people and to make them feel comfortable in asking uncomfortable questions.

I was fortunate to witness a masterclass in how to answer questions from the CEO of the organisation that acquired us when we got together all of our teams of people in one space for a big Q&A session. We’d set up an anonymous question box to eliminate that ‘fear of bias’ I mentioned earlier, but the questions were all still pretty tame and I worried that they didn’t accurately represent what people really wanted to know (but were afraid to ask).

As he pulled each question from the box, the CEO read it out and then said “what I think you are really asking is…” and proceeded to ask himself the most difficult, challenging, confrontational questions that people really wanted to know the answers to but had only felt comfortable alluding to in the most general of terms.  At the end of the session, he asked for more questions and all of a sudden there they were, people asking him directly what his thoughts were on the things that really mattered – because he’d given them permission to do so by asking himself the toughest questions.

I learned a lot that day about leadership, about how to encourage others but most of all about the importance of asking yourself the questions that other people are afraid to ask, all the “what if’s” and the “why can’t we?” questions that lie at the heart of most people’s uncertainties.  If you never ask yourself difficult questions you can’t understand how others might be feeling. The takeaway? If you know there’s a question on the tip of someone’s tongue, make sure you find a way to ask it. Just make sure you’re ready for what might come next…

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