The Gift of a Good Question

Every holiday my daughter lavishes me with homemade cards, paintings, and personalized coupon books. While giving is her gift, attention to detail is not. Imagine my surprise one Mother's Day when she was eight years old and handed me my stack of presents. With a wide smile on my face, I opened the first card enthusiastically and read, "You are the best mother I could ever have?"

The question mark changes everything. While her grammar mistake was unintentional—or so I hope—the most unexpected thing happened: this question stayed with me.  

Many times since then when I've worked too many hours, lost my temper, or just wanted some alone time, the question has come to mind, "Am I the best mother she could ever have?" When I'm nailing the parenting and career balance, this question makes me feel on top of the world. When I've made a mistake, it helps me own it and make it right. Had she simply asserted versus asked, “You are the best mother I could ever have!”  the moment would have been sweet, but the opportunity to aspire to be even better would have been missed.

As students we are asked questions and, when we have the right answer, are rewarded with good grades and accolades. Then we enter the workplace and operate under the same rules. We get enough questions solved right and find ourselves placed into leadership roles. We feel smart, we feel accomplished...we've done good dammit! But as we advance to larger roles, the questions get harder, and the title of Marshall Goldsmith's book comes to mind, "What got you here won't get you there."

The COO of a Fortune 500 company with whom I've co-led leadership development programs is hands down one of the smartest people I've ever known. While this certainly benefited his career and the organization very well, I learned that this was not his best-kept secret. One day when kicking off a new leadership program cohort, he asked the group, "How many of you lost sleep last night, the night before, perhaps the entire week before trying to solve a problem?"  Of course, the room was filled with raised hands and a few slumped shoulders.

Remember this guy from Ferris Bueller's Day Off…he tried to ask questions, but then he had all the answers!

So, the COO took a different approach. He asked the group, "What problems are keeping you up at night?" He started scribbling the questions he was asking on sticky notes and hung them up on a white board until it was full. Through a series of activities, he showed us how to lead the team to discover potential answers by posing the right questions. He challenged us to think differently about our roles as leaders, focusing on asking the right questions and removing the self-imposed burden of having all the answers.

The thing about a great question is that when asked one, you find yourself involved and eager to contribute to the answer. Just like my daughter's unexpected question to me, asking your team the right questions will invite them in to help shape the vision. Being a part of the problem up front will inspire greater ownership and better results than you've seen before.

If you find yourself up late at night chewing on the latest problem, don't try to solve it. Write down the question, take it to work the next day, and see what the team will do with it. You'll be amazed and just might find yourself sleeping those healthy eight hours.

As for me, I'm holding onto my daughter's question because it's a good one.

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