The skill of asking insightful questions can be the key differentiator between a good or poor non-executive director (NED) – or journalist.
Of course, both have different purposes in asking questions. A journalist is looking to create an interesting article while a NED needs to ask questions as part of his or her role to govern effectively.
Far too often, when directors assess why something went wrong, they discover they relied on management too much to keep them informed or that they didn't ask the questions which could have helped them identify a potential issue.
Both journalists and NEDs need to hone their question-asking skills to succeed. While NEDs should not be "interviewing" management in the boardroom, the journalistic trade offers some good insights. We asked Tony Featherstone, an experienced journalist, for some of his tips on how to ask better questions. Here is what he had to say:
1. Start with the end
Think what information you need to take you to the next step and frame your questions around that. Having clear information goals does two things: it creates efficiency in research as you narrow your topics and you receive more targeted information which produces a better end result. The trick is not to be too prescriptive with your information goals or to dull the spontaneity of questions and answers. Have the end in mind, but be sufficiently flexible to go off course if the answers provided warrant it.
The best questions come from careful preparation, significant research and thought. Poor questioners often ask questions that are more for their own benefit.
3. Anticipate answers
As part of the preparation process, always try to anticipate the response and visualise it. What do I expect to hear and would I be comfortable with that response? Often, the response is unexpected, but spending time anticipating it enhances your ability to ask impromptu questions and be more dynamic in your further line of questioning.
4. The mechanics
How long do you have to ask questions? What is the best format? Who are you asking and how many people are you quizzing? What is their background and possible biases? Getting these kinds of basics right lays a platform for productive responses.
5. Question structure
Always think carefully about the structure of your questions. If asking multiple questions, start with broader, more general questions first and move down to more specific ones. Ensure the questions have an obvious flow – that is, that one question leads to the next. Shorter, punchier questions are usually more productive. Long questions that contain several points can throw those responding off track and see them lose their train of thought. It's better to ask three short questions than one long question with three points in it.
6. Keep yourself out of the interview
Poor questioners have a habit of injecting their opinions into questions, talking over the people they are addressing or asking leading questions that try to "trap" people. Even worse, they ask questions designed to make them look good in front of their peers. But their efforts often fall flat because it is too much "about them".
Good questioners are usually great listeners. Significant preparation allows them to sit back and listen carefully to each answer. They always let people finish answering the question before interjecting. They also try to break their answers into a few dot points, so that they can ask insightful follow-up questions if needed.
8. Body language
Responses to questions are much more than verbal. Watch the person's body language and facial expressions when responding to a question. Over time, you will get better at assessing responses using these cues.
9. Be respectful
In my early journalism career as a tabloid sports reporter, the goal was to catch people off guard and "hang them with their quotes". That produced good "infotainment", but rarely does that interview style provide meaningful, substantial information. Directors, too, can have a poor interview style if they design questions to "catch out the CEO". A better approach is respecting the people you are questioning, being mindful of their time and having a genuine approach to gathering information to make better decisions.
Tony Featherstone is regular columnist and feature writer for Company Director magazine and a former managing editor of BRW and Shares magazines. Over a 22-year career in journalism, he has interviewed Prime Ministers, hundreds of CEOs, chairmen, and business and investment experts. He has also conducted several television interviews and moderated panel discussions for Australian Institute of Company Directors.
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