Leadership is a team sport. And conversations- call them developmental, call them coaching, call them fierce- are one of the most important plays we can run. As Susan Scott, author of Fierce Conversations, says, “The conversation is the relationship.” You can’t lead people if you can’t lead a conversation.
We were promoted into leadership positions because we were good at solving problems, at having the answer, at being competent. Yet in leadership roles, the balance starts to shift. Suddenly, we have to accomplish goals through others as opposed to on our own. Our effectiveness is not judged on how good we are, but on how good our teams are. To lead teams, we have to develop a new skill set- we have to ask the right questions, not come up with the right answers.
I was always better at solo sports- martial arts, fencing- than team sports- baseball, basketball. I have never found collaboration particularly easy or natural (‘Did not play well with others’ may end up on my tombstone). Tapping into the wisdom of others is not a natural act for me. Asking questions has been something I have worked very hard on for a very long time.
When we tell more than we ask, we take the ball away from others. It becomes more about us solving the problem than it is about others solving the problem. We don’t learn anything new- we simply dump what we know on others. We handicap the team, because unless we are smarter, better informed, and more talented than the rest of our team combined, we are not maximizing the team’s potential (and should probably get a better team).
It’s like the star player who takes all the shots, scores all the goals, and gets all the glory. Sure, that player may look great, but how does the rest of the team look? What happens if that star player gets injured? Suddenly, the team doesn’t look so hot, and in many cases falls apart.
As leaders, our job is to build the team’s capacity to perform. If we are not asking questions, we are not building capacity. We are not helping others develop their own ability to think, to reflect, to solve, and ultimately to perform. We become the star player on a weak team.
Want to be a better leader? Ask more questions. Seek more often than you tell. Get curious. (It goes without saying that you also have to listen to their answers.) Resist the urge to take the ball, even if you really really really want to (which you will- it feels really good to have the answer). Take the time to help others think deeply about issues, and they will perform better. That’s capacity building, and that’s what it takes to build a winning team.