Leading in the Age of Unicorns

Not many years ago, if someone suggested their privately-held tech start up would be valued at $1 billion, analysts would snicker. Today, they’re called “unicorns”—and according to Fortune magazine, there are 174 of them. Most of these companies have sprung up in the last decade, and it’s not just the market that is boosting their valuations. Many of these organizations are benefiting from disruptive technologies, which accelerate their time to market, their response to customers, and their sales cycles.

These unicorns are far more agile than companies of the past. But agility depends not only on cutting edge technology. Digital disruption requires new ways of working. To be competitive, businesses – old and new – are shifting from top-down, command and control hierarchies, which have been prevalent since the turn of the century, to ones which are flatter and leaner. They are ditching performance reviews, re-evaluating management by objectives and re-thinking job specifications. And alongside this overhaul, we need a new style of leadership.

In this environment, where we have far more connectivity than in the past, our leaders need to focus on connection, alignment and engagement. We need to practice new skills and behaviours, or Social Traits. These traits – defined by us at Be Leadership based on direct experience with modern organizations undergoing transformation – surface as those that differentiate leaders today from those in the past. We all have these Social Traits – but not in equal measure. Therefore, if we think about where we are strong and practicing these traits and where we could further focus, it will make us far more impactful employees and leaders.


The Social Trait Cards

To support our clients in thinking about this leadership evolution, we have created a deck of Social Trait cards. In physical form, our clients use these cards as part of workshops to reflect on their own social leadership skills and how they might continue to develop themselves and their teams (or organizations) to be even more effective.

Given the popularity of these cards with our clients, we have decided to make them available online in PDF form free of charge. You can download these cards today. We’d love to hear your feedback on your experience using them!


How to use the Social Trait Cards:

  1. Download the Social Trait PDF
  2. Print the document and cut out the individual cards.
  3. Looking at the traits represented on each card, consider your own strengths and development areas. Which of these traits do you regularly practice? Which do you see as your strongest attributes? Which could use more attention? Order the cards from strongest to weakest.
  4. Pairing up with someone who knows you, or in silent reflection, consider how you might leverage your strongest traits for greater impact, or develop those which you are not practicing as effectively now. What is one change you can make starting today to become a stronger Social Leader?


These cards were developed by Be Leadership Ltd to support individuals in their Social Leadership development. We’re delighted if this tool is valuable for you and would love to hear about your experience using them. The Social Trait PDF is copyrighted material and is meant for your personal use only.  If you’d like to reproduce them, or are interested in using them for your team or organization, please visit www.be-leadership.com to learn more about Be Leadership’s services or contact shannon@be-leadership.com to discuss.

Thanksgiving Think Week

Next month, my company Be Leadership celebrates its first birthday. In recognition of that, I’m stealing an idea from my former employer.

When I was at Microsoft, Bill Gates used to take time out each year for what he called Think Week, to get away from the day-to-day and think strategically about new concepts. For Bill and Microsoft, this week was about reading, learning about new technology and innovation, and getting caught up on recent research. What came out of these weeks were new ideas for the direction of the company.

As part of Be Leadership, I do lots of reading. I read more in this role than I have in any other; I feel I’m constantly learning about incredible innovations in leadership and business. But what I don’t do enough is step out of the day-to-day to focus on my longer term strategy and reflect on how I want my business to develop.

So next week – when many of my American clients and friends are on holiday celebrating Thanksgiving – I am having my own Think Week, where I will spend three and a half days reflecting on the past 12 months and then looking forward to 2016.


Day 1: Business Strategy

My Think Week will start with a look backward and then project forward to next year. I use a fantastic cloud-based accounting tool called Kashflow, so I have a good handle on my finances and P&L. But there are other questions I want to spend some time considering.

Looking back:

  • What are my overall financial results? How does this compare with my projections?
  • Who are my company’s clients? Where does my business come from?
  • How happy are my customers? How much impact am I having with the work I do? How can I tell?
  • How diverse are my company’s clients?
  • How diverse is the work I have done? Are these the areas I want to be focusing?
  • How do I spend my time? Is this in line with my desires and expectations?
  • What are my company’s Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats?

Looking forward:

  • How complete is my (primitive) business plan? Should I make it more robust?
  • What is my company’s unique value proposition? How clearly can I articulate that? Can I make this clearer?
  • What is my company’s mission? Purpose? Values?
  • Who would I include on my company’s Advisory Board? My personal Advisory Board? Are these the same? How should I be working with these people?
  • How can I get customer input on my work and my plans?
  • What are my business objectives for next year?


Day 2: Business Growth

Given the maturity of my business, I am spending a whole day this year focused on growth. If Be were at a different stage, I might choose to look strictly at customer satisfaction or zero in on marketing. If my organization were larger, I might focus on people management. As Be Leadership heads into its second year, I have a number of questions to consider around growth, relating to customers, marketing and business development.

At the end of Day 2, I have a call scheduled with my mentor of nearly 20 years, Holly. I work quite a bit on my own, so it’s important to me to have people I trust who ask good questions and challenge me. My friend and ex-colleague from Microsoft, Matthew, has offered to review some outputs from this week. And my fellow executive coach Sarah is meeting with me on Friday to check on what I’ve achieved. All of these check ins will keep me focused and accountable and help make the week a success.

Here are some questions I will answer on Day 2:

  • How do I define successful growth for 2016 and beyond?
  • What do my clients need from Be Leadership? Will this change in the future?
  • What are my customer channels? Are there new channels to consider?
  • How effectively does my website represent my company?
  • Are there resources I can develop that would help me more successfully market my business?
  • How effective is my customer tracking? How can I better support and communicate with my clients?
  • What partners do I need in 2016 to grow my business?
  • What other changes will I make in 2016 to support growth?


Day 3: Personal Growth

Day 3 is my last full day of Think Week, and I want to use this time to make some decisions about my personal involvement in Be Leadership and my own development next year. In 2015, I did work on my executive coaching practice and completed a certification with the NeuroLeadership Group. As I continue to invest in my skills next year, I need to consider where to focus. I also need to think about my overall career.

Here are some questions for Day 3:

  • What do I want to achieve with my learning and development in 2016?
  • Given this, where should I invest my development time and money?
  • What financial investments should I be making for my future (eg pension)?


Day 4: Reflection

On the final day of my Think Week, I will spend time reflecting on what I covered during the week and will have a coaching call with my colleague Sarah.

I’m energized by the thought of this work and spending my Thanksgiving week exploring these questions. And since it’s Thanksgiving, I want to say thank you to all of you who have supported Be Leadership and me personally this year. I am grateful for the opportunities I’ve been given, the people I have met and how much I have learned.

Would you or your organization benefit from a Think Week? What questions would you like to reflect on and answer?

Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

The Tyranny of the Urgent

Yesterday I had a rare “free” day – one uninterrupted by meetings and appointments where I could spend the day at my desk really getting things done. When the day started, I thought about all the things I’d like to accomplish. The hours stretched out ahead of me, and I was excited about the possibilities. I had blog posts I wanted to write, a 2016 business plan to draft and some changes I hoped to make to my website. All were important, strategic projects to help grow my business and prepare for next year.

The day passed, and I was productive. But not with all of those important projects. Instead, I got sucked in by my to-do list, which was full of urgent tasks that I felt had to be done immediately. I filed expenses and sorted out the pile of paperwork that had gathered on my desk. I sent out some invoices. I responded to client queries and delivered some promised actions. I felt great about my progress, yet at the end of the day, I knew I had missed an opportunity.

In my work, I often coach leaders who are struggling with exactly this challenge: They have great strategic opportunities – ones which could be transformational for their business and for themselves personally – and they struggle, like me, to give them the right priority. They head into the office in the morning full of good intentions, only to find people at their door, emails in their inbox and messages on their mobile phones with real, urgent needs that stop them from making progress on longer term goals.

So what are we to do about this ongoing struggle? How do we get the right balance between the urgent and the important?

1) Block time in your diary

Some projects require a level of focus that is hard to obtain during a standard work day. If you need some time for thinking and reflection, or to move an important project forward, consider blocking dedicated time in your diary. Then keep this time sacred, just as you would time allotted to any other important meeting.

I do this occasionally for large projects that don’t seem to have a clear deadline. I also do this for things like exercise, which otherwise can be too easily pushed aside. I dress in my running clothes when I get up in the morning and block an hour in my diary to run as soon as I drop my daughter off at school. Because I schedule it, I make sure it happens. And by going out first thing in the morning, I get the productivity boost that morning exercise gives you while avoiding getting dragged into a crisis that might otherwise prevent me from giving it the time it needs.

2) Find a new work environment

Even with time set aside, urgent issues can come up that distract. In this case, consider an avoidance tactic – don’t go into the office at all. Work from a new location that is free from your standard distractions.

What this location looks like may vary. For some, who are in a standard office setting, this may be working from home. Those who need quiet may try a local library. Others take a more creative approach: I recently spoke to a team that went on a “coffee crawl” to focus on a strategic project, spending one hour in a local coffee shop before moving along to the next one. They left with a caffeine buzz and a finished project.

3) Don’t go solo

Often times, as leaders, we feel we need to work on the big strategic questions on our own, before we share them broadly. Many organizational cultures reward expert leaders who come with the answers. The bigger the potential transformation, the more leaders tend to want to hold the challenge close until a vision or direction is clear.

In today’s organization, this is short sighted for a number of reasons. Not only are many companies moving toward more collaborative cultures which discourage command and control leadership, but this also can create blockages in progress on large, important change.

Instead of trying to tackle strategic challenges single-handedly, bring in some diverse perspectives. Delegate to a team of high potential talent to explore the question or create a task force to establish the work as a priority. Or, if it really is something you must do alone, find an accountability partner – a coach, a colleague or even a manager you can share your goal with who can check in with you on your progress.

4) Re-assess the project’s importance

Despite being distracted by my to-do list yesterday, I am a big believer in task lists and have an established system for tracking my work. One of the keys to this system is that everything goes on the list and each day I mark those items that have greatest priority. That’s where I put my attention. As I move toward Friday, I shift items to future weeks as my schedule becomes clearer and I am more able to assess what’s possible in the current timeframe.

One of the sub-rules for this system is that if I move something forward three times, I reflect again on its importance. Why is it not getting priority? Is it really essential? If not, and no one is depending on it, it gets cut. If it is important, it automatically becomes a priority in the third week – with time set aside to ensure its successful completion.

5) Break it down

Sometimes in assessing an item’s importance, it becomes clear that the problem isn’t that it isn’t an essential or strategic task or project but in fact it’s not getting done because the next step isn’t obvious. As humans we take the path of least resistance. If we have five things to do that require very little thought and are seemingly urgent, we do those first. Therefore, we are more likely to make progress on those larger, more strategic and important projects if we break them down into clear and measurable tasks and we know what we need to do next.

The next time you find that you are leaving your office at the end of the day frustrated that your important work is not getting done, think about these approaches to managing your work to get a better urgent/important balance. Do you have other methods that work for you? If so please share them in the comments.


Look at Me: The Business Etiquette of Eye Contact

My phone rang while I was in the queue to pay at the supermarket. It was my husband, and I thought I’d just say hi. It would be quick.

But maybe not quick enough.

When I got to the front I felt the pangs of guilt when I finally looked up and noticed the check-out woman glare as I talked on. Was I really one of those people?

Have you noticed how having mobile phones gives us all liberty to demonstrate horribly anti-social behavior? Whether we are walking along the street texting, oblivious to others, ignoring each other while we play on our phones at the dinner table, or talking on the phone while we pay for our coffees, we are neglecting basic social skills that we learned as children.

According to Ofcom, 93% of British adults own a mobile phone and research tells us that a stunning 84% of us would not go a single day without our device.

There are great benefits to this connectivity, personally and at work. These tools allow us to be more globally networked. They support flexible working. They create the conditions for faster information sharing. They help us be more efficient and productive, able to manage more, and be more informed.

Sadly, though, the same research that shows the positive benefits to this connectivity says that 35% of people use their phone while playing with their children and 32% use their phones while driving their cars. And all of this phone use drastically reduces the amount of eye contact we have with one another. Even Queen Elizabeth apparently misses looking people in the eye.

Eye Contact Rules

While there are varying cultural expectations, and some cultures see a direct gaze as disrespectful, eye contact is an important part of business etiquette in the United States and most of Europe. As a general rule, making appropriate eye contact in these countries signals respect, empathy and inclusion.

While there is debate over the details, the basic rules are relatively simple:

  1. Look at someone when they are speaking to you: Specialists debate if it should be 30-60 percent, 70 percent or something else in between, but what is generally agreed is that you should look at someone more when listening than when you are speaking.
  2. Blink and nod normally: One of the goals of eye contact is to help convey that you are paying attention. By nodding and gesturing appropriately, you help the speaker interpret your eye contact in the way it’s intended. For many people this blinking and nodding comes naturally when actively listening. If you struggle with eye contact, you may need to think more about responding to the speaker with nods and other gestures to indicate you are appropriately engaged.
  3. Don’t stare: Most all cultures agree that extended eye contact is creepy and inappropriate. Look away after a few seconds and then look back again to avoid the sense that you are staring.

My Commitments: Going Back to Basics

If you, like me, feel you’re slipping into bad behaviour with your phone use and have forgotten the art of eye contact, there are steps you can take to make amends. Given my annoyance with those people who use their phones and ignore those around them, I have made some personal commitments to make some small but consistent changes:

  1. No phones at the table: A couple of years ago, my husband and I went to dinner on Valentine’s Day at an amazing local restaurant. At the table next to us there was a couple who each spent the entire evening on their phones, sitting across from each other but not communicating with each other at all. Partially in response to observing this, we made a family commitment to put away phones while we are at the table. I have always felt that the dinner table is a great place to connect as a family at the end of the day, and phones and other devices get in the way of that. By putting away our own phones, we also role model what we expect from our daughter. If you extend this to the workplace, consider putting away your phone for an hour and use lunchtime as an opportunity to connect with your colleagues sitting next to you.
  1. Thank you with a smile: A few months ago I started practicing basic eye contact in stores. When I buy something from someone, I look them in the eye when I order. When I get my change or receipt, I look at them and smile when I say thank you. This seems pretty simple and expected, but when I started deliberately practicing it I realized I really wasn’t doing it consistently before. And, as above, this can be extended to the workplace and to your peers. It is amazing how it changes the level of connection you feel with the people you interact with on a daily basis.
  1. Try videoconferencing: I spend many hours every day in virtual meetings. Until recently nearly all of these were conference calls. I didn’t see the people I was speaking with, but I could hear their voices. This meant I could stand up, walk around, make a cup of tea or even (gasp) check email while we were meeting. Now because I cared about these conversations, I made every effort to focus and want to believe I was successful. But what I missed was eye contact. I didn’t even realize it until I turned on the video, but by seeing the other person’s face, and by focusing on the screen, I increase my active listening and feel a stronger connection to those I’m meeting. Recently I was in a video call with a number of managers and one of them had her camera facing side on, so we saw her profile. She was a very active contributor on the call, but the feedback at the end was that her peers wanted her to move her camera so they could see her properly.

Eye contact. It matters more than you’d expect.

The Dos and Don’ts of Empathy

The day the River Thames was flooding my home, I was at a birthday party. Perhaps unsurprisingly I was not my positive, social self. In fact, I believe I was probably pretty miserable. An hour into being terrible company, someone approached to ask what was wrong.

“The river,” I said. “I’m pretty sure we have about six inches of it in our house now.”

Her reply came quickly, without thought: “Well, at least you’re not in Somerset.”

Somerset – for the non-British among you – is a low lying in Southern England that was also flooding at the time and getting a lot of TV coverage. But water is water. And when you get it in your house, it doesn’t matter much whether the press is there to watch the destruction.

Sadly, bad things that happen teach us lessons in empathy. But somehow, we struggle to translate the empathy we wish people would feel for us to appropriate empathy for others. I like to think that the trials I have gone through in my life have made me an empathy expert. But then I see myself tongue-tied – or even worse – lacking in patience or saying utterly the wrong thing – when others need my support.

So, as much as a reminder for myself as for others, here are the lessons around empathy I have learned from my darker moments:

  1. Really listen: There are tell-tale signs. You say hello. They say hello. You start talking about something or ask a question. Then they jump in and talk for 10 minutes, 20 minutes, more – clearly unhappy, and sometimes about something completely unrelated to where the conversation started. This is the indication that you need to block out all the voices in your brain that are thinking about what you’re making for dinner and listen.
  2. Avoid comparisons: Comparing their challenge to something you have gone through, or worse, the TV equivalent, can never end well. Even when actively listening, extroverts like me tend to understand people’s challenges by thinking about something similar they have been through. Don’t talk about that. This isn’t about you, it’s about them. Take that understanding you have about the situation and respond the way you wish people had responded to you. Show them you get it by the questions you ask. Even “I don’t know what to say, that sounds really hard,” or “It sounds like this is really difficult,” is better than saying “I know what you mean, when I lost my dog I felt like that too.”
  3. Don’t disregard the situation as not important: Sometimes people come to us needing support and we just don’t see what the trauma is about. Don’t they realize that things could be much worse? Why is this work issue such a big deal? Why do they feel lonely? Afraid? How can they feel sad when they have a beautiful, healthy newborn or a promotion or a new house? So what if they lose their house, aren’t they grateful to have their husband and child? Someone recently told me that grief is localized. It’s all relative. If someone is opening up to you, it’s real for them. This is a chance to give a gift of empathy. Don’t try to explain why they shouldn’t feel the way they do. Don’t disregard their challenge as insignificant. This isn’t your challenge, it’s theirs. What they want is someone to listen, and to understand that for them, right now, this is difficult.
  4. Don’t sugarcoat: When someone comes to you angry, upset, sad, needing empathy, it is a good time to take off the rose-colored glasses. A person going through something difficult doesn’t necessarily want to look on the bright side. They want to be heard. “That sounds really difficult for you,” or “I can’t imagine what you’re going through” go a lot further than telling them the sun will come out tomorrow.
  5. Don’t try to problem solve: Many of us are paid to solve problems. We are good at it. But in a conversation like this one, the solutions may need to wait. And once it is the time and place, brain research tells us solutions and insights are better off coming from the person who is going through the challenge, and not from us who are supposed to be listening. So save the advice, and ask questions instead. Play back what you are hearing. Help them know they are heard and that what they are feeling is legitimate.

I have yet to find someone with a perfect life. No matter how many great straws we draw, there is always one that is the shortest of the lot. And in the relatively bad times, we all need those supporters who will help us through. I hope the next time I’m given that opportunity, I apply these lessons instead of reflecting on them after the fact. And the next time I need empathy, I wish for the same.

Working Effectively in a Matrix Organization

Agile. Streamlined. Connected. All of these words are being used to describe the goals of organizations as they moving from a strict command-and-control top-down hierarchy to one that is more nuanced. Often the resulting organization is one that is called a “matrix.”

Matrix organizations can bring big business benefits. According to a 2011 survey by the Corporate Leadership Council, business units that are effective at collaboration outperform those that are not on both revenue targets and employee engagement. And according to PGi, collaboration with those outside the team results in 35% greater innovation and creativity. But what is a matrix and what can be done to help ensure it is effective?

A Matrix Organization, Defined

By definition, a matrix organization is one that facilitates the horizontal flow of skills and information. Historically, this structure was used for management of large projects or even product development processes, allowing companies to draw employees in from different disciplines to work together without shifting the formal reporting lines. With the shift into the Social Era, however, and the need for faster, more agile structures and higher levels of collaboration, more companies are shifting to this matrix model as their primary organization design.

Employees in a matrix organization generally have at least two “reporting lines” or directions of responsibility. One focus is with a horizontal organization, who usually manage projects, products or business units across departmental boundaries. The other is a more traditional, vertical organization, usually with a department head, where employees report on their overall performance. The horizontal structure, where reporting lines are less formal, are often identified as the “matrix” and it is in this organization that things can get a bit messy.

Building a Matrix Community

To be effective in a matrix structure, organizations need to build a real community that connects the team of people who are working together from differing parts of the business. Regular communication is key to the community’s success. Here are five additional steps to maximizing a matrix organization’s effectiveness:

  1. Identify a community manager: Matrix organizations imply reduced formal hierarchy but that doesn’t mean roles and responsibilities shouldn’t be clear. The most important role in a matrix community is the community manager – a person to bring the community together and take a lead in the coordination. Depending on the business or organization, this is often is a product manager, area segment lead, or someone who feels they have high co-dependency across the group. This person does not need to be in any formal leadership role.
  2. Co-define purpose and goals: To maintain energy and commitment across your matrix, you need to have a shared purpose and goals. By bringing the group together and defining this early on in the community’s existence, you get increased engagement from the matrix team members. What value do people see from this community? What can this team achieve by coming together?
  3. Plan for regular connections: It’s easy to let matrix community meetings slide when formal hierarchy demands are competing for time, but regular communication and connection is essential to a matrix organization’s success. Even if you feel you don’t have anything to cover, it’s worth meeting briefly to see what emerges from the community. Often an empty agenda allows concerns and questions to emerge that otherwise may have been left unspoken.
  4. Reach collective agreement: In so far as possible, matrix organizations should be trusted and empowered. Shared accountability leads to increased levels of trust. The community manager should practice leading from the back – allowing members of the community to step up and lead in areas where they have passion and energy. The most effective matrix communities tap into members’ energy and passion, leveraging the virtual team to own and drive initiatives.
  5. Focus on principles, not rules: Given the importance of tapping into community members’ passions and empowering your virtual team, it’s probably not surprising that your matrix will be more effective if you concentrate on establishing guiding principles together instead of detailing exactly how results should be achieved. This isn’t to say you should relax expectations – it’s fine to be very clear and precise around the end goals that are expected from the community – but then allow for flexibility and creativity around how these are achieved. This freedom gives space for innovation, greater levels of engagement and deeper commitment from all of the matrix.

Moving from Connectivity to Connection

I was honored to be asked to speak recently at the Happy Workplaces conference in London, where I shared my thoughts on social leadership and ways leaders can embrace the Social Era.

What is Social Leadership?

If you read most any employee engagement survey out there today, you’ll get the same message: Employees are not engaged at the level companies need them to be. A commonly referenced Gallop study found 70% of US employees are not engaged at work. A similar UK study says that only one third of UK workers are engaged. In fact, in 2014, a study by HR Magazine found that UK employees have some of the lowest engagement levels in the world, with only 37% of workers feeling they were encouraged to be innovative.

There is not just one cause for this. One could blame the economy which is forcing many workers to work harder and more hours, increasing stress and decreasing satisfaction. Or you could say that companies are not rewarding their employees well enough. While there are likely many contributing factors, there is a one long-held belief that is backed by data:

People join companies and leave managers.

Most of us, during our careers, have had a wide range of managers: some good, some bad – many somewhere in between. During my time in multinational corporations, I have had managers who empowered me to do great things, inspired me through clear vision, allowed for risk-taking to support innovation. I have had managers who listened, asked questions and coached me in my decision making.

And I have had those who didn’t.

In today’s business climate, norms are changing and all of us are expecting more from our leadership. Top-down, authoritative styles are no longer adequate. As employees and customers, we expect leaders to be more collaborative, more authentic and more engaged.


Technology is one influencer – as users of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram, we have grown accustomed to a more dynamic, engaging conversation with those around us. Companies started participating to get an edge over their competitors – but as we move further into the 21st century, this type of conversation is becoming expected. It is no longer the differentiator – it is the norm.

Generational Change:
The so-called millennial generation also contributes – this generation demands a flatter, more agile organization and as this generation joins the workforce in droves, they bring new cultural expectations.

Finally we are a more global workforce. More and more companies are working across international boundaries, using technology to communicate and share. Leaders frequently have remote employees, who they meet face-to-face infrequently. These employees need to stay connected and informed, and a more frequent, conversational style of leaderships supports that culture of connection.

Social Leaders are those who are responding successfully to these changes. They are adopting their style to be more conversational. They don’t have the one-way top-down style so prevalent in the past but instead engage with their employees, their customers, and society in new ways. They are creating a culture of openness and connection in their organizations. They are responding to their customers’ needs. They are engaging with government officials to understand the broader society needs and how their organizations can contribute positively.

Sometimes these changes are leveraging technology – Leaders are using tools like blogs and Yammer and Chatter to talk to their employees, ask questions, share best practices and learn from their organizations. They are tweeting and commenting on posts from their customers. But this is not about being tech-savvy: Social behaviours do not have to be dependent on technology at all. Social leaders walk the hallways at work, getting to know their employees more personally, asking questions and understanding the true sentiment in their organizations. They hold roundtables to get the pulse of their organizations at all levels. They participate in what is often called Reverse Mentoring, where they become a mentee of a millennial employee to learn the behaviours and expectations of this employee base first hand.

There is no doubt that this more collaborative style of leadership brings benefits around innovation, productivity and engagement, but these behaviours don’t always come naturally. Leaders may need coaching and support to develop these skills and to learn to connect in new ways.

As you go about your day today, pay attention to the leaders you encounter. How many of them are being social? How are they demonstrating this? And what is the impact on you?

What is Your Question?

How many questions do you ask in a day?

Questions are the foundation of conversation. Most of us ask them without even thinking about it; they are a fundamental part of human connection. Without them, there is monologue, an endless stream of thoughts. Or, alternatively, there is silence.

In John Green’s novel Paper Towns, the main character Quentin says:

“The thing about Margo Roth Spiegelman is that really all I could ever do was let her talk, and then when she stopped talking encourage her to go on, due to the facts that 1. I was incontestably in love with her, and 2. She was absolutely unprecedented in every way, and 3. She never really asked me any question so the only way to avoid silence was to keep her talking.”

Questions are essential, not only in our personal relationships but also in the work environment. As a sales leader, asking questions is a fundamental part of solution selling, or understanding the customer’s needs before promoting a specific product. As a people manager, asking questions engages a team, helps to increase creativity and innovation, and helps to ensure there are no misunderstandings. Questions help leaders deal with ambiguity and work toward clarity. They help individuals thrive in times of change. When we engage with customers, questions help to ensure what we are offering, building or creating meets an existing need.

What is interesting, however, is that despite all of these relatively obvious benefits, leaders today are not really encouraged to question. At a certain point in our careers, we are rewarded for having solutions and sharing those solutions through “vision” and “strategy.” Leaders are expected to be experts. Questions, which have so much value, can be seen as a sign of weakness. And, as a result of this, we forget the art of questioning.

In today’s social climate, where dialogue and conversation are vital and expected, this needs to change. Questions can help us solve problems, think through issues, and get to solutions. And maybe most importantly, they are what make us social. We need leaders who start every engagement with a question, who are willing to ask why. And who see that asking these questions will help move the organization forward.

Therefore, my question for you today is this:

What is your highest priority and what question can you ask others to move this priority forward?

Finding the Underlying Problem

How often are we asking the wrong questions? We ask questions to achieve greater understanding, more insight, better results. We ask questions to solve problems. But what if the problems we are trying to solve are the wrong ones? What if the real problems are sitting buried under the surface?

If we don’t identify the right problem, will we ask the right questions? Or will we focus on the wrong ones?

Scott Dannemiller, in the Huffington Post, says that as parents, we focus 100% of our energy asking the wrong question. As modern parents we fill our children’s social schedules with piano and Chinese and hockey. We pressure our children to practice; we put them in extra lessons and fill their extra-curricular lives. And the question he says we’re asking is:

“What might we miss if we don’t take advantage of these opportunities?”

 Dannemiller claims that fear is driving us to try to solve the wrong problem. Instead of constantly pushing for more and better, we should slow down, think about what we really want for our children and ask new questions, which consider unintended consequences and underlying motivations. Questions like “What do we really want for our children?” and “What do our children miss out on if we push them this way?”

 This challenge isn’t one only faced by parents. We face this in business and in other aspects of personal life. We spend six months – or two years – in meetings discussing a challenge at work, only to find that we haven’t made progress because we’re focused on the wrong thing. We push and push ourselves to improve our work performance, only to realize that a different role is much more fulfilling. Or we stay in a bad relationship and keep asking ourselves what else we can do to make things better, only to realize the problem is that it’s not a relationship we should fix. Once we find the right problem, we ask better questions, and we get to solutions.

If you feel stuck, and you’re not making progress on something – be it your child’s violin lessons or your team’s performance – go back to the questions you are asking and the problem you are trying to solve. If you are asking yourself “Why won’t she practice?” consider asking new questions, such as:

  • Why must she practice?
  • What are the consequences if she doesn’t practice?
  • What are the consequences if I force her to do this every day?
  • What am I trying to achieve with this?
  • Why is she resisting?
  • What else might she be doing during this practice time?
  • Why do I care so much about this?
  • What are my motivations?

If you are asking yourself why your team isn’t meeting one of its targets, consider the same process. Move from the questions you have been asking and the solutions you have been trying and go back to a broader set of questions to try to identify the root cause. Taking these steps will help you to move forward.