The one question every boss should ask

March 21, 2011, 2:47 PM UTC

It may sound simple, but knowing how to ask a solid question is a discipline worth cultivating. And there’s one question some managers say is essential to doing their jobs well.

When Nancy Hickey was promoted to chief administrative officer at Steelcase, she

began to oversee areas of the office furniture corporation that she knew little about; among them, IT, real estate and facilities. So she started asking questions, plenty of them, to the department heads who reported to her.

Now that Hickey, a former human resources executive, knows more about the departments she oversees, her questions have changed, and she can push her team more effectively, and better understand how they’re faring. She’s among a growing cadre of senior managers who use smart questions to engage, innovate and solve problems.

A consummate inquirer, Hickey believes that asking questions instills an intellectual curiosity and encourages her staff to share their expertise. “They know the right things, maybe better than I do,” says Hickey, whether they are working to design new Steelcase chairs or upgrading its website.

Senior managers who employ smart questions have found it “a wonderful discipline for executives,” says Robert Simons, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School and author of the recently published Seven Strategy Questions.

“Some leaders are, by nature, questioning and empowering and pulling in the ideas of [other] people,” he says. The rest — the majority of executives — struggle to advance their business objectives by asking questions consistently.

Many of the executives who come to Harvard for advanced management programs “really wrestle with this stuff,” Simons says. “They make assumptions that everyone in their organization is on the same page” he says, or may not be willing to ignore people’s titles to dig for the best insights.

He believes that all leaders can become more valuable by asking the right questions — sometimes multiple times — which in turn helps to strip away confusion and provides focus on unique business situations. “The job of a leader is to simplify and focus,” he says.

Marshall Goldsmith, an executive coach who works with some high powered CEOs, says that asking for information and feedback is a discipline. “I don’t think it comes naturally to any of us,” he says. Yet when you hire and manage smart people who know more about their area than you, “you have to ask, you have to listen and you have to learn.”

James (Jamie) Hutchinson, who is the partner in charge of Alston & Bird’s New York office, uses questions to evoke what he describes as, “an openness and a curiosity rather than … a pre-determined answer that I wanted to go to.”

“It’s not as though I sit around and think up especially clever questions,” says Hutchinson, who focuses on employee benefits and executive compensation law at Alston & Bird. “It’s [about] asking questions more, with more interest in learning something rather than judging.”

During the annual reviews of all the firm’s partners, Hutchinson might mention that he has read a partner’s self-evaluation memo and ask, “What would you like to emphasize on what you’ve done in the last year?”

The one question to ask your staff 20 times a day

When looking at a partner’s successes with clients, he may ask, “How do we build on that?” Another question he likes to use during reviews: Who has helped you? And who have you helped?

That’s a question that Manny Fernandez, managing partner of KPMG’s Dallas office, can appreciate. Fernandez asks a variety of questions on feasibility and ethics when he’s meeting with his staff, but he asks one question in particular all the time: “How can I help you to be successful? I ask it 20 times a day.”

He hears a wide array of answers to that question, from resources that people need to connections that a colleague hasn’t seen or made. Fernandez sees the question as a good motivator.

Questions like “how can I help you?” fall squarely into one of Simons’ seven strategy questions, question no. 6, in fact: How committed are your employees to helping each other? This kind of question can help build commitment, motivation and trust.

Simons’ questions, which grew out of 25 years of research on organizations and their development, focus on seven areas critical to business success: customers, values, creative tension, setting boundaries, and uncertainty and change — which leaders get to by asking “What strategic uncertainties keep you awake at night?

Questions can help executives “stay on top of a changing world,” Simons says, though he’s never seen any research that shows the Socratic method to be a more effective management approach, though he does see that that approach engages business school students.

Steelcase’s Nancy Hickey, who started out as a teacher, sometimes takes notes as she asks questions, and then refers back to the notes before the next meeting with her direct reports. She likes to use questions to visualize the future and inspire people to develop new ways of thinking about their departments and the company. She might ask Steelcase’s (SCS) chief information officer what the next generation of IT will look like. Or she’ll ask the real estate sustainability team how other companies manage a particular issue.

“The questions I use are to push their thinking to the next level,” Hickey says.

Hickey asks — and answers — questions at a monthly birthday breakfast for employees at Steelcase’s headquarters in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She uses the event to answer employees’ questions and receive feedback.

“I will respond to a question with a question too,” she says. And, like Hutchinson, most of Hickey’s favorite questions are open ended. When someone comes to her with a problem, she often asks: “If I had a magic wand to solve this problem, what would you want me to do with it?”

Her next question: “What’s the question I didn’t ask you that you wish I had? What’s the question that I missed?”

After all, some of the very best questions out there are the ones you didn’t even think to ask.

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