Ask Great Questions to Grow Your Career
Techniques for career growth abound. One of the most reliable is learning to ask great questions early and often throughout your career. Great consultants ask great questions to calibrate with their clients. Great leaders ask great questions to provoke new thinking and ignite innovation. Great teachers ask great questions to help their students reframe old problems in new ways.
In the early stages of a career, the tendency is to lead with answers rather than questions. The need to prove yourself, the fear of revealing ignorance in a particular area, or the unconscious belief that you “should” have the answer all conspire to encourage answering over questioning. This is ironic when you consider that, if ever there were a time in our careers when we needed to ask more questions, it would be at the beginning. After all, we are all novices at the start. In fact, for most people, it will be years and years before real mastery begins to take hold. Yet, time and again, it is those later in their careers who pose most of the questions—the seasoned manager, the senior executive, or the one with significant tenure—while those newer to the workforce, the organization, etc. tend to jump prematurely to answers, to solutions, to rapid problem-solving. And, to be clear, sometimes this is good and necessary. But too often, this tendency cuts short the process of reaching and ultimately solving the underlying problem, rendering any solution reached short-lived.
What makes a question great? The answer depends on the situation, but one thing all great questions have in common is the motivation to expand your understanding of the issue at hand, and a willingness to probe the deeper levels of an issue until you reach its root. Another is an interest in understanding the pain your clients are feeling as a result of the problem, and what the issue looks like to them. Above all, asking questions demonstrates humility, caring, interest, and insight. We signal our insight by the questions we ask more so than our ignorance.
Questions to Ask When You’re New
Being new to an organization is a high-pressure time for anyone, even those with many years of experience. When you’re new, everything starts at zero. We must build relationships, results, and our reputation one day at a time. The pressure to do all of this quickly can inhibit the process of slowing down and asking great questions, which can ultimately impede the very relationships and results we are trying to achieve. Here are some great questions to ask when new to any organization, regardless of your role or experience level: What are the essential values that animate this organization? How do they inform our day-to-day decision-making? What are we trying to create as a team, as a department, as an organization? What is our current state like compared to our desired state? What would it take to close the gap? What are the unstated cultural norms here? What happens when people act outside of or against those norms? Is it okay to question decisions once they’ve been made? Asking questions like these will help to position you as thoughtful, engaged, and perspicacious in the minds of your new co-workers.
Questions to Ask When Joining a Project Team
When project teams form, they are often under the pressure of an aggressive deadline or high expectations from senior managers. Here again, this pressure can cause the team to blow past important questions—never asking them or, if asked, failing to spend enough time developing quality answers. Here are some great questions to ask in the very first project team meeting: Who is the project customer? (Note: the answer is not senior management; the answer is whoever will use the results of the team’s work.) What does our customer need? What does our customer want? How do we know? Are there other stakeholders besides our customer who need to be involved, informed, etc.? What exactly will this project team deliver, and on what date? How will we know if we are successful? What constraints are we facing? What assumptions are we making, and how can we test them? These questions are foundational to the success of any project, so don’t be afraid to slow the team down and spend quality time answering them. Sometimes, we must go slowly to go fast.
Questions to Ask When Problem-solving
Clients come to us with problems of all shapes and sizes. Some are transactional, in that they can be solved in the moment without extensive effort, research, or analysis. But many others take time to think through, reframe, and resolve. Here are some great questions to ask when a client brings you a more complex problem: What was the trigger that caused you to reach out to me? How long has this problem been going on? What solutions have you tried to date, and why do you think they haven’t worked? Do we understand the underlying, root cause of this problem, or do you think we are mostly dealing with symptoms? Who else is suffering as a result of this problem? What will happen if the problem isn’t resolved? How much is at stake? If you could snap your fingers and change one thing about this entire situation, what would it be? How can I clear a path for you? Questions like these alter the nature of your relationship with the client—you become consultative by asking them—and increase the likelihood that you will solve the problem.
As you manage the long-term arc of your career, remember: great questions lead to great reflection. Great reflection leads to great learning. Great learning leads to great action. Great action leads to great results. And great results are indicative of great leadership.