By David Spitulnik, Founding Member and LWCN's SME on Strategy and Leadership Advisory
One of my favorite quotes comes from Thomas J. Wilson, Chief Executive Officer of Allstate:
“As you advance in an organization, your question-to-statement ratio should also go up.”
In other words, part of becoming an insightful leader is knowing that just because you’ve done something a certain way many times before doesn’t mean it’s the best way to accomplish the task today and going forward.
That’s what makes it vital to say one of the most important phrases possible to your team members: “What do you think about this?”
Let’s consider this for a moment and why you want to open the floor to input on a great many things. Go back just one year ago. What do you see?
Your age was different than it is today. The businesses you dealt with may have been different than the ones you deal with today. Your direct reports may be different. Your level of pay may have been different too.
Therefore, is it not unreasonable to think that a question asked one year ago…might have a very different answer this year? Particularly due to the pandemic and realities from it that now exist a year later?
You may not know everything (who does?), but you may very well have some relevant experience. And as a result of that relevant experience, you may ask a question of the team that seems insanely off point judging by the first initial response.
I’ve been there. A few times, I walked into the room as a general business adviser and asked a question that, on the surface, was not even from left field. It was almost from another planet. Yet, a couple of days later, those leaders said, “You know, that question, even though it seemed like it was from another planet, has helped us think totally different about what we're doing and taken us to a place where we would have never gone before had you not asked the question.”
Don’t Give Them The Answers
A leader can come in with the answer and it’s often their habit to do so. However, there are two problems with that:
1) It may not be the only or best answer.
2) People in the organization will have been deprived of an opportunity to use their critical thinking and judgement.
If someone comes to you with a recurring problem, giving them the answer or doing it for them will function as a crutch. They need to work the problem, identify potential solutions and be energized by the outcome they’ve arrived at, largely on their own. Does that mean as a leader you have to get out of the way completely? No. If you see a team member with a problem, don’t give them the answer that comes to you first. Instead, say something like, “If I were you, I’d go think about A, B and C more. Explore that and what things you can do when you pursue some of those paths further.”
See what we’ve just done? We’ve installed you as a guide who can unlock clues and insights but not as the all-knowing keeper of the answers. This pushes your people to work more independently with confidence, knowing that they can grow from their experiences – even if some of those experiences don’t go their way.
David Spitulnik is the managing partner of Spitulnik Advisors, LLC, a leadership advisory practice in Chicago. He works with organizations and individuals to develop and implement strategies that drive transformation, growth, diversification, operating efficiency, and value creation. David is also the author of a book on leadership titled "Becoming An Insightful Leader: Charting Your Course To Purposeful Success." He is an ACE Certified Coach, received his MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, and on the board of the Youth Job Center.