by John Baldoni

Questions to Make You a Better Leader

Jul 13, 20076 mins
CareersIT Leadership

Take an example from the famed leadership consultant Ram Charan.

Thinking about what you do, and why, is essential to any business. So someone who can challenge you to do it may be worth their weight in gold. At least that’s what the clients of Ram Charan, a leading independent consultant, believe. “He forces you to tell him what it is you want to do,” says former Citibank CEO John Reed. “And he forces you to really be clear in your own mind about what those things are and what steps have to be taken.”

For more than 30 years, Charan has been trotting the globe dispensing advice. According to a profile of him in Fortune magazine, he lives modestly for a globetrotter—he owns virtually nothing (no house or car); he is single and helps support his extended family in India, chiefly with funds for education. For a man who counsels the titans of global business, he is surprisingly humble, fond of quoting Sanskrit sayings such as, “Fear, laziness and anger. These are the downfall of human beings.”

Asking Questions

The secret to Charan’s ability is his ferocious intellect and incredible knowledge. One executive says, “He probably knows more about corporate America than anyone.” But he is discreet. As Jack Welch, a former client, says, “He has this rare ability to distill meaningful from meaningless and transfer it to others in a quiet effective way without destroying confidences.”

One of Charan’s techniques is his ability to ask the right questions, questions that probe to the heart of a problem and challenge people to think very deeply about what is possible, probable and doable. Clients pay Ram Charan many thousands of dollars to challenge them in this way, but you don’t need an outsider to ask good questions. In fact, asking good questions is a practice that all managers can cultivate. Here are some suggested ones.

What about your work motivates you? Too basic? Not really. When we are engaged in day-to-day work, we often forget about what drew us to what we do in the first place. When facing problems, we get caught up in the issues rather than what we like about what we do. By asking this basic question you can get to the root of what you like to do. And if you are doing it, fine. But if you are not doing it, then what can you do about it? What changes can you make so that you find satisfaction? Do those changes involve job redesigns, task reassignments or prioritizing your time more efficiently? Answers to these questions will get you to the heart of what matters most to you and may provide a path for you to fill fulfillment. (Or point you in a new direction to try something new.)

What are the challenges facing your department? Now it’s time to get down to business. By identifying challenges, you get a better handle on your work. Is a new competitor entering your business and must you find new ways to compete? Or is your department facing reorganization, are you getting a new boss, is efficiency plummeting? If so, why? Are people engaged in their work? Answers to these questions are not easy; they are designed to provoke thought.

What can you do to overcome these challenges? It’s up to you. What are you going to do about a new competitor, a reorganization or lack of motivation in your team? Underperforming organizations are often plagued by a malaise where no one does anything for one two chief reasons: one, It’s not my job; or two, I don’t care. Neither of these is satisfactory. Leaders take action; they make a difference. They identify their role in meeting challenges and solving problems. By asking yourself what you must do you put the onus on yourself to act. This same question can and should be asked to a trusted associate, too. You can help him or her gain some clarity about the challenges ahead.

How can you help your boss lead more effectively? Identifying your role in solving problems is excellent, but as a player in your organization, you have to think beyond yourself. Sometimes you have to lead up. Leading up is different than managing up; both are valuable, but managing up is focused on systems and processes; leading up is centered on providing insight and direction. When you lead up, you help your boss see things that he or she should do and you put yourself in a position to provide good counsel as well as focused actions.

What are you doing to spread confidence? Works hard, yes, but if you go back to the original question about what motivates you, you will discover the points that get you charged up. Is it solving problems? Is it helping customers? Is it the camaraderie of working with others for a greater cause? Whatever the answers are, capture them and spread the good news. People need lifting up, especially in times of crisis. Leaders owe it to their people to provide the sense of confidence that yes, we will prevail and yes, we have the resources to do what we say we will do. More importantly, confidence is derived from accomplishment as well as the knowledge of future accomplishment. That is, the going’s tough, but we’ve come through it once and we’ll do it again.

Turn Up the Burner

Charan does something else his clients like. He keeps after them. “[O]nce you’ve agreed on everything you want to do,” says former CEO Reed, “[Ram] calls you up every ten minutes and asks why haven’t you done it yet.” The ability to nudge people to action is critical; successful executive coaches do this very well. But truth is they do nothing as it relates to action; they simply provide an impetus for action. It is the executive who calls the shots, and rightly so. Not everyone needs (or can afford) a Ram Charan, but all of us can benefit from a trusted associate who challenges us to think by asking good questions, and then pushing us to follow through.

The author would like to thank John Heidke, Ph. D., of Right Management (Great Lakes) for his insight in developing these questions.