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Leaders Don’t Need Answers; They Just Need Great Questions

November 14, 2017 Susie Kelleher

When I became a new leader years ago, I was lucky enough to attend new leader training for a week every six months for two years. I learned situational leadership, hiring and interviewing, leading vs. managing, and much more. Later in my career, with continued leadership training, I learned the skill of coaching. While all of the knowledge was useful, this was by far the most impactful leadership skill I learned, and also the most gratifying.

So what is coaching? Well, it isn’t the definition most leaders think of. It’s not me telling you what you are doing right and wrong and how to do it better; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. Leaders often feel they need to have all of the answers; that’s why we were promoted, right? Wrong. Leaders need to have great questions and live in a place of curiosity without judgement.

Engaging leaders are excited about igniting the potential in others. Purposeful leaders know that others have great insight and ideas, and by uncovering those ideas in others, they not only get better solutions, but also increase discretionary effort of those they lead.

How do they do this? By asking really great questions to help others solve problems and explore new possibilities, instead of trying to solve the problems for them. Leaders often suggest the wrong solution or a less effective solution to the wrong problem, as they have only part of the information. Few leaders coach others well, as it hasn’t been foundational teaching in the past. But the ones who do create tremendous success for organizations and individuals.

What, How, When, Where, Tell Me More
When someone comes to you with a problem, question or opportunity, ask questions to help them gain clarity on the issue (not for you to gain clarity, but for them). Questions that start with what, how, when, where, and tell me more. For example, when someone walks in your door and states a problem to be solved or an opportunity to be seized, simply say, “Tell me more about that.”

Then, listen with authentic curiosity as they talk. You likely aren’t getting to the core of the problem with just this one question, so in the words of Michael Bungay Stanier, follow this with: “And what else?” Let them continue to talk and tell you more. Stay fully in question mode; don’t jump in to solve. As they share more you will be tempted to offer a solution, but stop yourself. Follow the last question with another, like “What have you already tried?” Often, they will be grateful for the chance to talk through their thinking. And any suggestions you make are likely things they have already tried.

When coaching individuals, spend about 50 percent of your time helping team members get crystal clear on the real problem. Then, spend another 20–30 percent of the time flushing out possibilities by asking questions. This is how you give your team space to look at the same problem from different angles and take new perspectives on situations. Ask questions like “What else is possible here?” and “What is another way we might look at this?”

Over the years, I’ve noticed that if I’ve done a good job coaching, the person seeking an ear tells me, “Here is what I need to do.” They come up with the solution, are excited about the solution, and are clear on what they need to do and why. They are fully bought in on the action they need to take. It’s their idea, after all! And this takes only 10 percent or less of the coaching time. Too often, leaders start with action before there is clarity on the problem, missing the opportunity to explore further possibilities.

Lead without Solving
As you embark on this new way of leading without solving, here are a few traps to be aware of:

Coaching Trap #1: Asking questions to lead them down a path you think they should take. Be careful to stay in a place where you are truly asking questions to help them get greater clarity on the problem and generate new possibilities.

Coaching Trap #2: Asking questions to get more information so you can be more informed to solve the problem. Pay attention to what you are saying to yourself during the coaching, and catch this if it is happening. Your questions should be in service of them finding the solution, not you finding the solution.

Coaching Trap #3: Moving to action too quickly. The longer we stay curious, the more likely they are to come up with an action step they are truly excited about for the RIGHT problem.

Coaching Trap #4: Ego takeover. Don’t let your position or insecurity get the best of you. Leadership is about empowering and enabling others to do extraordinary things for the sake of everyone’s success. Truly inspiring leaders lead from this place. Sure, there are times you will offer ideas, but since this is most leaders’ current default, I would encourage you to refrain fully from that for a bit to create some new habits.

The Coaching Habit
To get started on your coaching, I highly recommend Michael Bungay Stanier’s book The Coaching Habit. He has a very simple formula you can follow, and does a great job expanding on why and how coaching works.

I can tell you as a recovering, constant advice-giver, it’s much more satisfying to coach people to find their own solutions, rather than simply handing out advice that often is misguided.

If the leaders inside your organization learn to coach rather than solve, you will exponentially increase the potential and engagement inside your organization. Start with a simple “Tell me more,” followed by “And what else” in your next conversation. I think you will be surprised by what you learn and the results that will be generated by others.

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