News & Insight
November 2004

Employing 'Curious Inquiry' as a Leadership Style

John S. Arnold

One of the biggest challenges facing business today is planning strategically for an orderly and productive management succession by identifying and preparing future leaders from existing talent pools.

Many companies have gone through a period of attrition over the past several years. By surviving round after round of job cuts, there is little doubt that the remaining talent pool is pretty highly skilled. And companies have not done a very good job in designing, delivering and implementing a structure for identifying future leaders in their organizations, in part because they don’t talk about it formally.

Too often, there are what I call “missing conversations” taking place. Instead of occurring in the conference room, they’re happening in hallways and on airplanes. Executives recognize the need for the process, and they talk about the need to develop strategic leadership competencies informally, but they’re not engaging in it in a formal setting.

There is the likelihood that someone on the leadership team is going to be afraid of revealing some of his/her own inadequacies. Unless there is a high level of implicit trust, and someone has the courage to put this on the table, those necessary discussions are not likely to happen in a group setting. And that’s a risk organizations must take if they want to grow. Support for the process must come from the top.

One way to approach this issue is to employ a leadership style of curious inquiry, which invites individuals to share their ideas for change without posing a threat to them and their position in the organization. Thus, instead of asking, “Why haven’t you developed such-and-such a competency in your operating unit,” a leader could ask, “What competencies do we need to achieve our goal? How might we best develop those competencies?”

Questions that begin with “what” and “how” evoke thought; questions that begin with “why” evoke emotion and often are threatening to people. They put them on the defensive and make people shut down.

If you ask one of your managers, “What can I do to support you in this effort,” you’ll get a very different answer than if you simply say, “Why haven’t you finished your assignment on time?”

I recently coached a chief executive who was fond of asking his managers a lot of “why” questions. Why is this report late? Why haven’t you met your sales targets for the quarter? I advised him to employ curious inquiry, to ask questions that invite people to open up more about the concerns that they had without having to face criticism. He called me after his first meeting using this new approach and was ecstatic with the results.

“We talked for more than two hours,” he said in his voice mail message. “It was one of the best meetings we ever had.”

Based in Coral Springs, Fla., John S. Arnold is a member of WJM Associates’ executive coaching and assessment faculty.

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