One Critical Leadership Skill Anyone Can Learn – at any time

Many young business people aspire to become future managers and leaders but there is often a lack of leadership development available until one is promoted to a leadership position. Of the myriad of skills that leaders need to master such as critical thinking, problem solving, and working collaboratively with others, one skill can be learned independent of a formal learning process. This skill is not only used daily, as a leader, but mastering it early in one’s career helps to mark one as “leadership material.”

That is the skill of asking good questions.

If you aspire to leadership you’ll want to purposefully think about (and practice) the way you ask questions. When most people ask a question they are asking for facts or details such as What happened next? What are my options? What would you like me to do?  But a leader needs to gather critical insight through his / her questions in order to make decisions that move the business forward. There are three types of questions you can practice, this week, that will help you to gather critical information and to be viewed as a thoughtful up-and-coming leader.

Open ended questions

Open ended questions require the other person to respond with their thoughts or beliefs. it is a personal response rather than a factual one. A common mistake of new managers is to give an instruction or direction and then ask “Have you got that?” which only requires a short yes or no response and doesn’t help the manager to assess if the instructions really were understood. If instead the manager were to ask “What are your thoughts on that?” or “How can I help you with this assignment?” he / she then elicits more information from the other person and learns if they are confident, concerned, or confused.

These kinds of questions can move the whole organization forward by forestalling miscommunication and failed actions based on assumptions.

Clarifying questions

Too few individuals take the time to ensure that they truly understand a speaker. I have always found that anytime I ask someone “Did you means this, or this?” what I had originally assumed the answer to be was wrong.  Clarifying questions are important for leaders to master because they can save an organization from disastrous results.

Example: Shelby, a salesperson for a media company, was reviewing a proposal with her manager before presenting it to a new client. At the end of the conversation her manager said it would be OK to cut the cost of the proposal by 5-10%. Shelby asked, “Do you mean you want me to cut the cost now? Or to use that as a negotiation strategy?”  Her manager replied, “I’m glad you clarified that! I mean to use it as a negotiation tactic, if you need to. Good luck!”

High gain questions

High gain questions are used rather rarely as they tend to stop a conversation while the respondent considers their response; however, high gain questions are the mark of a true leader in conversation. High gain questions require the respondent(s) to apply critical thought before responding.

Consider the difference between

  • What are the obstacles you foresee? (open ended) and
  • What are our two best options going forward? (high gain)

While the open ended question is good for gathering more information, the high gain question returns a carefully considered response.

Being able to utilize each of these types of questions – open ended, clarifying, and high gain – is a skill that can be practiced early in one’s career in preparation for moving into a leadership role.

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