Questions are the key, Part 1

Management can be overwhelming sometimes. On top of the myriad issues we have to deal with daily is the internal desire to be a better leader. Yet tackling that issue can seem impossible, given it's made up of so many different areas. What do I work on first: communication, recognition, retention, goal-setting or something else? The list goes on and on.

Happily, I've found a book that can make improving your leadership a far less daunting task: "78 Questions Every Leader Should Ask and Answer" by Chris Clarke-Epstein. Now, before you get freaked out at the number of questions, let me explain. The book is divided in eight sections, such as "Questions leaders need to ask themselves," "Questions leaders need to ask their employees," "Questions need to ask customers," etc.

What I like about this book is you don't have to tackle it all at once. Clarke-Epstein wrote the book in plain English, in a casual, conversational style, with plenty of anecdotes and examples to emphasize her point. If you worked your way through the 78 questions, it sure wouldn't feel like 78. You could just tackle the sections at your pace and in any order you like.

The idea for the book sprung from her work as a speaker, trainer and consultant: "I do a lot of work with senior leadership teams, and I really got intrigued on this notion of how difficult it is for people as they are promoted to stay really connected with the reality of their people, the reality of their processes and how their business really works. That isolation happens pretty quickly."

To combat that Clarke-Epstein says she encouraged her clients to engage in a little MBWA (Management by Walking Around), but found that once they got out of their offices, "they wouldn't know what to do."

"Part of the reluctance [of leaders] to go out of the office is this shared belief that leaders knew everything therefore they would always have to be responsible for the answer," she says.

'If I stay in my office nobody will ask me a question I can't answer.' The problem from the employee standpoint is, 'If the leader knows everything I'm afraid to ask a question because they'll say I can't believe you asked that stupid question.'

That myth needed to be punctured so real relationships and dialogue could take place."

To combat those misconceptions, Clarke-Epstein compiled these lists of questions managers can ask different groups of people to improve communication, knowledge and relationships. The questions range from the practical, "If you were me, what's one thing you would change about this organization?" to the introspective, "What do I want to be remembered for?"

Clarke-Epstein advises folks to start slow. Pick one question you're interested in, for example, "What's the one thing in our policies and procedures that get in your way of doing your job successfully?" and ask it of everyone you see for a week.

"You'll find by asking one question for a week you'll get more comfortable asking the question. As you're more comfortable, you'll get better asking the question and the quality of the answers you receive will improve," she says.

Next column, we'll continue with Clarke-Epstein, who will share her advice for folks who just aren't good at interpersonal communication.

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