Asking challenging questions is a skill in itself and not everyone is cut out for the job, writes Kath Walters.
In failures of corporate governance, we often find that directors have failed to ask the right questions. More often, I believe they have asked the right questions, but in the wrong way. That is a big risk. The ability to ask the right questions is a defining skill for today’s directors, who are dealing with so much uncertainty and volatility.
Yet, I see little evidence that directors are being recruited for their ability to ask questions skillfully. This key skill is rarely mentioned in written guidelines on how to recruit a director. It is seen as a soft skill – optional.
Technical skills – a background in finance, law or human resources – usually top the list. And it’s evident that skilled questioners are missing from boardrooms – we see it in disrupted companies and industries, in financial losses, and in company collapses.
There is an art to asking questions that get honest, full and authentic answers. Directors cannot be subject matter experts on every topic – and yet they must make decisions as if they are. So what is wrong with the questions being asked in our boardrooms?
It’s too easy to assume that trust and honesty deepen with time. In my experience, trust is not a one-off event. As a journalist, I have to build trust and rapport with my subject every time I speak to them before I can ask any hard questions. There is no skipping this step. What changes is the amount of time it takes to get to that trust and rapport.
And yet we know it is human nature to lie sometimes – just a bit (hopefully). We might avoid answering a question fully and deeply. We might skim over a problem. Or we might say that something is complete even though we are still getting it done. Why? We don’t want to look foolish. We want to keep our options open, to change our minds or avoid blame. While every executive needs to have integrity, it’s the director’s role to build a sense of ease and trust that combats our urge to make ourselves look good even at the expense of the truth.
I recently heard an excellent question posed by a speaker at a governance event:
“What biases do you bring to this conversation?” asked Jennifer Holliday AM, former chairman of Softball Australia, and a trainer in board skills for not-for-profits.
It’s a deep question, and it needs to be asked. As a director, you need to understand conscious and unconscious bias to effectively assess risk. But it is also a confronting question. You won’t get anyone fessing up to their guilty secrets if you hit them with a question like that one early in any discussion.
We do our best thinking when we are relaxed – we have our best ideas in the shower – the neuroscientists have confirmed that. We do our worst thinking when we are stressed.
Directors will put each other and their executives on the defensive by leaping straight to the hard questions. The director’s role is to establish the rapport that will get good answers to hard questions.
The art of putting others at ease is not an optional skill. Nor is it difficult; it is simply a matter of practice. It can be as simple as nodding and smiling while someone is talking. Even better, make a positive comment when they finish, such as: “That is an interesting idea.”
Now dig deep. Understand that there are different types of questions. Ask some easy questions first, the ones that focus on what, where, when and who. These are called convergent questions by two communications experts, Chris Musselwhite and Tammie Plouffe, in the Harvard Business Review.
I call them questions that the subject cannot fail to get right. For example, how many people did you consult in preparing this presentation? It’s no good asking great questions if you don’t listen to the answers.
When people feel listened to, their liking of, commitment to, and trust in others increases. Show you are listening by referring to their answer in your questions: “You mentioned strategy; can I ask you to provide an example of that.”
Now you’re ready to dig deep. You can ask challenging questions and expect to get honest, deep and authentic answers to them. Now, you are doing your job as a director.
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