While it's important to have a defined sense of direction, the exceptional leader will always understand the importance of asking a great question then listening intently to the responses: an open invitation for ideas that unlocks creative thinking and motivates employees, writes Ed Haddon, The Modern Maverick

Ed Haddon, The Modern Maverick

As an entrepreneur or a leader there is an underlying assumption you know the answer. The route to becoming a leader can involve more talking than listening, solving problems on the spot and having a clear vision. The route to becoming an exceptional leader flips this premise: questions rather than immediate answers and collaboration rather than individual brilliance. 

I gave one of the keynotes last month at the Leadership Live conference in Manchester run by the Institute of Leadership. What was clear from all the talks, whether from a hostage negotiations expert, an Olympic gold medallist or a communications guru, was asking great questions was the key to highly effective leadership.

Understanding that as a leader you cannot do it all and you have to develop and delegate to other leaders around you unlocks the next stage of both personal and business growth.    

Entrepreneurs and leaders who retain absolute control and direction throttle the potential of their businesses. Asking questions of all your stakeholders, including your teams, customers, suppliers and communities leads to better strategy and execution.

A great question unlocks creative thinking. If you always come up with the answer, your teams will stop thinking for themselves and stop offering input and ideas. 

What happens if you pose a question and then speak last rather than first?  

Providing people on the team feel safe to talk openly and make suggestions (if they do not, you need to build a sense of psychological safety and trust) you will generate a richer set of suggestions and solutions than if you tried answering the question alone.  

A great question also means people on the team feel seen and heard. They feel like they are making a difference and they can influence the results of the business. This is the number one reason people join and stay at companies. It is highly motivational. Their relationship with the company deepens and trust increases. 

A slight warning note is needed here. Asking questions and either repeatedly ignoring the answer or claiming the answer as your own is more demotivating that not asking the question in the first place. A good tip for really listening to the answers is to paraphrase what you think you have heard back to the person talking.  

How do you frame a great question?    

Taking time to think about it is the start point. The right question can open up a problem neatly. What is it you are really trying to solve for?  

Avoiding closed questions – where there is a simple yes/no answer – is important. The difference between “Do we need to change this process?” and “How would you change this process?” is clear and powerful. 

It can be tempting to ask multiple questions at once, meaning the answer will be confused at best.
Give people the chance to dream and to take risks in questions: “What is the one thing you would change? What would you do, if we had double the resources available?”.

You will know when you are listening well because follow-up questions will start to arise in your head. 

This is different to waiting to make your own point or coming up with your answer, which happens when you are listening at a superficial level. 

Keep going. “What else?” are surprisingly powerful words. “Because?” is one word that always opens a deeper level. You will notice the difference in engagement from those around you almost immediately.

There are, of course, times when as a leader you do need to be decisive and have an answer ready or a direction to head in. There are times when your questions will be met with silence or superficial answers, or moments of intense pressure when the environment is not right for pausing and reflecting. 

But these moments are rarer than you might think. How about experimenting with your own level of question versus answer over the next few weeks? n

Ed Haddon is the author of The Modern Maverick – Why Writing Your Own Rules Is Better For You, Your Work And The World, published by Bloomsbury. He also is the Founder of Haddon Coaching, a B-Corp dedicated to helping people live entrepreneurial lives