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Asking the Right Questions

Everybody knows the ability to make correct decisions is one of the hallmarks of a successful CEO. But the ability to do so comes after mastering the technique of listening to a bewildering array of alternatives and then diligently probing each one’s chances of success or failure. To be effective, this practice must be catalyzed …

Everybody knows the ability to make correct decisions is one of the hallmarks of a successful CEO. But the ability to do so comes after mastering the technique of listening to a bewildering array of alternatives and then diligently probing each one’s chances of success or failure. To be effective, this practice must be catalyzed by asking difficult questions that challenge so-called “facts,” verify data sources, and force project proposers to do their homework in advance.

Asking the right questions is an art, not a science; there are no software programs on this subject. It is best learned through experience. You learn most by seeing things go wrong, because the right questions were not asked, and by seeing an innovative proposal adopted, because the right questions were asked. One asset many CEOs bring to the table is personal-and successful-experience in dealing with such problems and the know-how to use that background to advantage.

The best and brightest CEOs seldom are willing to rely upon their own question-asking ability to accomplish change and to make better decisions. Rather, they establish an atmosphere in the company that encourages inquiring minds. They invite candid, objective questions from board members; indeed, they consider the prime talent of an outside director to be his or her question-asking ability. They do not confine these discussions to a small group of palace guards but go directly to the primary data sources and to those who have opposing viewpoints. In their companies, they learn from personal experience who asks the best questions and who consistently seems to answer questions with the most logic and reason.

Involved CEOs are constantly immersed in the learning process. They ask questions such as, “How much does this cost? Who are our customers for this product? Who are our primary competitors in this area? Where do we make the most profit?” This is how they keep abreast of the business and in touch with what’s happening. This helps them to become competent CEOs.

But when the questions become provocative and challenging, these CEOs tend to drive change, to forge ahead of competition, and to become leaders. They ask questions such as, “Why do we do it this way? Is there a better way, and what would it cost? What do our competitors do that is different and better? What could we-should we-do to become more profitable in this area? If this were your own business, how would you handle this problem?” It doesn’t take much effort to switch from an in-formation-gathering stance to a more proactive posture that stimulates responses and leads to doing business faster, cheaper, better.

I knew a smart CEO who parlayed one basic question into a successful management style. He asked the people who reported to him, “What can I do to make you more effective in your job?” When his people recovered from their shock at being asked such a question, he received some rewarding suggestions and comments. But even more important, it enabled him to do three things:

  • To ask a few months later, “Have I properly followed through on your thoughts?” €.To discuss more readily what they should do to improve their work.
  • To suggest that they might ask the same questions of their own subordinates.

It is a difficult question for some managers to ask, and, as so often is the case, the ones who most need to ask it find it the most difficult to do.

However, it is not enough just to be a questioner. We all know some people who are almost “professional” questioners, but who don’t listen to the answers or act on the proffered suggestions. As a responsive CEO, you must be prepared to handle some answers you won’t like, some that don’t make sense, and some that have been given before. It isn’t easy, but no one ever said the CEO’s job is easy.

The CEO position has many facets that are not covered by a job description or by a list of responsibilities and authorities. Chief executives have to know when to praise and when to criticize, when to speak out and when to listen, when to doubt and when to believe, when to stop and when to start over.

In some ways, the measure of CEOs’ success is determined almost as much by the way they handle themselves as by the sheer numerical and financial results of their stewardship.

How do they learn these things? As I said, mostly through experience. But the provocateur of experience is asking the right questions.

I always remember a mother who, when her son came home from school each clay, asked him, “Did you ask any good questions today?”

Did you?


Formerly the CEO of F.&M. Schaefer (19721977), Robert W. Lear is chairman of CE’s advisory board. He also teaches at Columbia Business School, where he is Executive-in-Residence. He is an independent general partner of Equitable Capital Partners and holds directorships with Cambrex Corporation Inc.; Scudder Institutional Funds; Korea Fund; and Welsh, Carson, Anderson, Stowe Venture Capital Co.

About robert w. lear