Asking the Right Questions – A Key Attribute of a Leader
Inspired by a fall 2018 NMA Breaktime article by Robert Noel
2018 NMA National Recognition Chair
Boeing Leadership Association of Southern California (BLASC) / Seal Beach, CA
Quite often, people who become leaders exchange their detailed understanding of their products for a more strategic view of the mission and vision for their company or city. What this can mean is that the leader is not the right person to really review the technical solutions developed, yet they are the ones that need to approve of these products.
In recent management and leadership books, writers have suggested that the decisions be passed to “where the work is done”, empowering those who do understand the details of the processes and products. While this approach is admirable and does involve those most affected by decisions, it also removes the vast experience and viewpoint of the leader from the decision process.
Another and better way to be involved as a leader that has less technical knowledge than others is to be the one that brings in the right questions to help focus the team toward strategic goals and more useful products. As an example, consider a situation where a team is designing a car. While those experienced with automobile design will likely know the right way to develop the parts and integrate the full car, the leader can ask questions about what market they are attempting to reach and whether this car will be one that leads the company forward into new markets.
Questions like these help others to understand the big picture of the development, i.e., the reason the product is really being developed. These questions can range from a sense of purpose (“Why are we here? How does our product lead us forward?”) to adjusting the vision to understand the marketplace (“What does our likely customer struggle with? How can we become the provider of choice?). Leaders have a unique view of the overall process that can be likened to watching a dance from a balcony instead of being on the dance floor. This perspective not only helps to focus the effort on the right product but also helps mature future leaders for the company or city while defining the vision of the future.
This type of thinking can be called visionary. Lofty goals that seem to be of little tactical value usually result from visionary thinking. In the early 1960s, President John F. Kennedy famously challenged the scientific community to put a “man on the moon before the end of the decade”. When looked at from a detailed sense, this represented nothing practical. Still, Kennedy knew there was a tremendous benefit to the country from doing this. People were inspired to study science (resulting in other historic achievements in successive years), new products were developed to allow for space travel that also benefitted people on earth, and the country had an amazing achievement to serve as a symbol of American pride. The country came together nearly as one to celebrate the amazing achievement.
None of this would have taken place without someone seeing greater benefits to space travel. But Kennedy was able to see all of this and mandate the development of the space program. A more tactical person may have taken the resources involved and done something far more “useful” (though mundane). Leaders can demonstrate their vision to help others think more strategically. When mixed with the detailed knowledge of subject matter experts, great things can happen.