Asking the Right Questions


I just spent two full days going through a training workshop in the Marshall Goldsmith method of Executive Coaching at the Marshall Goldsmith School of Management at Alliant International University.  I’d met Marshall Goldsmith and heard him speak a couple of times and have read a number of things he’s written.  I find his approach and philosophy very appealing.  I am exploring the possibility of becoming an Executive Coaching myself, so I thought I’d attend this seminar/workshop to learn more.  It was a good call –  not only did I learn a lot, I met some great people and enjoyed myself.

The concept of “Executive Coaching” is relatively new, but it makes sense.  A leader has a lot going on, and his/her actions and decisions can impact a lot of people, and the stakes can be high.  Little things matter.  It is sometimes difficult for leaders to get the unvarnished truth.  Human beings under pressure often don’t see themselves and their situations very clearly.  We all see ourselves and our world through an opaque lens, distorted by our egos, experience, prejudices, desires, and wishful thinking.  A ‘coach’ can help the leader cut through some of that, to clean some of the grime off the mirror so to speak, to help leaders see themselves and their situations more clearly. The coach can offer perspectives that those who are most impacted by the leader’s decisions may not feel free to provide.

 There are a number of ways the coach can do that – and one of the most important is to ask the right questions.

Peter Drucker once said: “The most common source of mistakes in management decision-making is the emphasis on finding the right answers rather than the right questions.”    I learned that executive coaching is very much about asking the right questions to help the leader think differently about a problem.   We heard a story about a very dynamic and successful leader who complained about being misunderstood by her subordinates.  After listening to her complain that her subordinates had a narrow and unfair perspective of her, the coach asked her, “Well, what can you do to change their perceptions?”  That simple question was a catalyst that helped her realize that indeed she had some responsibility for how she was perceived.  That realization and the steps she subsequently took to change how she presented herself to her subordinates, and thus how they perceived her, ultimately led to better teamwork and greater success for her and her organization.

Asking the right questions can be key in much of what we do.  Teaching is largely about asking the right questions – pioneered by Socrates in what has come to be referred to as ‘the Socratic method.’   The ‘right’ question will challenge and inspire the student, the leader, any of us to look differently at what we do and how we perceive an issue.   It seems however that the ‘right’ question has to come at the right time to be most effective.  There is a Buddhist proverb that says, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”  And maybe when the student (meaning any of us – we are all ‘students’) is ready, s/he will hear and take seriously the ‘right question,’  actually reflect on it, be challenged, inspired, and perhaps transformed by it.   The question can ‘turn the key,’ but if the engine is frozen, or the spark plug wires are unplugged, or the gas tank is empty,  nothing happens – other things have to be in place for the engine to turn over.

The successful, but misunderstood leader described above was ready to consider the question the coach posed to her, to consider her own power to be more than merely a victim of being misunderstood.   She was ready to own the problem, take responsibility, and be held accountable.  The coach was merely the catalyst, with the right question, at the right time.

Asking the right questions is the first step; being willing to struggle with the question, and consider  potential answers is even more important.  It takes courage to ask oneself hard questions and to face and consider possibly unpleasant answers.   Many of us don’t have that courage, or we don’t have it all the time. 

Camus said that philosophy must begin with the question, “Why not suicide?” Now that’s a fundamental question!   The answers we come up with in considering it might help us to sort out our life’s priorities.  While it’s a great and important question, I’m not sure that an executive coach should pose that one at the beginning of his relationship with a client!

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