The concept of asking questions seems to be following me around lately.
Several weeks ago, I read an article by Shane Snow in Fast Company: Click here
Then, I went to have coffee with my neighbor, who told me I absolutely had to read a recent nonfiction book by well-known French journalist Bernard Pivot entitled Oui, mais quelle est la question? (Yes, but what was the question?).
And third, a friend sent me a link to an interview on Charlie Rose’s website, where Charlie asks General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt about the most important lessons he would like to teach to future business leaders.
The common element of these disparate items is that they all in some way emphasize the importance of learning to ask questions, which I have long considered one of the most underrated skills in leadership, in marketing, or in all of life for that matter.
One of my favorite parts of the Fast Company article is the title, which states that there is a simple conversation tool that will make you better at absolutely everything you do. The “simple tool” is asking questions, and in terms of the tool’s importance, I could not agree more. In all my university teaching and corporate seminars, I have always considered the process of learning–how we learn as opposed to what we learn–to be at least as important as the transfer of knowledge. As such, I evaluate students, in part, on their ability to listen, to participate in the group discussion, and to advance the learning process by asking questions.
The article argues that learning to ask pertinent questions is more difficult than one might imagine. And, it is indeed a rare attribute in today’s fast-moving world. Asking good questions necessitates slowing down. It simply takes a lot of concentration to listen well, to interpret a context, and to formulate a relevant query. In the end, it is about being present and showing manifest respect for the person you are listening to. All of the outstanding leaders I have worked with have understood this.
Jeff Immelt’s views seems to concur with the Fast Company article. In response to Rose’s question about the most important things he would teach to aspiring leaders, General Electric’s chief says that the biggest mistakes we make happen when we stop asking questions. Above all, leaders should stay curious and humble, asking questions and collecting information from a wide variety of sources.
When he took over the top job at GE, Immelt says that he already “knew how to run businesses”. The more subtle part of the CEO’s job was understanding a context, seeing how the various businesses fit together with each other, and how they fit into the world at large. One can only come to see and feel these things through asking a lot of questions and listening attentively to the answers.
Bernard Pivot’s book provides a different perspective and further insight. I have been a fan of Pivot since my student days. For many years, he presented a literary magazine on French television. Though never a big TV watcher, I would rarely miss Pivot’s show. He always had lively and enlightening exchanges with his stream of interesting guests, mostly from the world of fiction, but also some journalists, business or political writers. Even back then, I considered his skill as an interviewer to be extraordinary.
In the opening chapter of his book, Pivot tells a fascinating personal story of identity and explains its overriding lesson, one that would stay with him through his entire lifetime. When he was a boy of thirteen, Pivot learned the pleasure, and the power, of asking questions. It was during his pre-confirmation confession. Tired of the priest’s annoying questioning, he describes how he was able to “reverse the roles”, turning the tables so that he became the one asking the questions. He spent the rest of his career refining his skill as a questioner, the skill he still sees as one of life’s most important.
All these stories can’t help me but wonder: Is it possible that we spend too much of our time searching for answers, and not enough finding questions and listening to responses?
“To get good answers, you need to ask better questions” is one of the key rules I remember from your leadership course in Grenoble, John. It was back to 2003 and I apply it all the time.