The Art of the Question

I once asked a group of 50 or so District Managers of a retail organization what would happen if they made a slight adjustment in their approach to leadership? They had grown up with numerous mentors who had carried the infamous “yellow pad” with notes on it to review with their store managers as they made their regular visits. However, the practice of the yellow pad had likely deteriorated somewhat from its beginning when it was in the hands of the master of the Art of the Question. For many of these leaders, the yellow pad had become a list of things that needed to be corrected fairly quickly during their visits. And for the sake of efficiency they would simply go through the list with the store manager telling him/her what they wanted them to hear and correct. They often did this with a sense of urgency and with a subtle message communicating the consequences for failure to get these things done.

The “slight adjustment” I asked them to consider began with my own question: “Do you think your managers already know most of the issues in their store that need correcting?” In other words, do they know what’s on the list? The vast majority of these District Managers said, yes, they thought the manager already knew. I then asked, “Do you think your managers already have given some thoughts as to the plan they intend to implement to correct the problem or make the improvements?” And again they said “yes”.

With that in mind I suggested a new approach to their next visit. I suggested they begin the visit by asking the manager what he/she saw that was going well in their store. I encouraged them to have them list all the things they could think of, and then ask them to describe how they thought these things came to be. Two things occur out of this conversation. First the manager has an opportunity to sing the praises of his people to his DM. Secondly, it gives the DM an opportunity to hear a lot of really good things that are going on. An additional opportunity presents itself for the DM to add a few additional successes he/she had observed as well, along with an encouragement for the manager not to overlook these details.

Next, I suggested the District Manager asked the manager what the problems were, what needed improvement, and what plans he/she had for getting things on the right course. Two things occur during this conversation as well. First, it allows the manager to be hyper alert to the challenges he/she is facing and be ahead of the game when it comes to solutions. Secondly, it allows the District Manager to assess the competency of the manager in picking up on the real issues and root causes of problems. On top of all this it allows the District Manager to gain confidence in the competency of the manager as they present their analysis, and it allows them to become a true coach for helping the manager develop those skills when they miss the mark.

One principle of my coaching philosophy is: “People learn to believe what they hear themselves say.” When these questions are asked the manager begins to hear themselves speak out loud the things they need to hear themselves say. If they can do this well, they don’t need their District Manager over their shoulder micromanaging their business. If the District Manager gains confidence in their competency during this process, they may actually back off on their micromanaging and criticism, which are debilitating management behaviors that cause others to freeze up and become less productive.

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