When Questions Matter More than Answers

questions matter

November 5, 2020

By Geoff Towers, CEO Pershing EMEA

The Covid-19 pandemic has tested leadership. It has also highlighted a difference that isn’t always clear: whether people are following a manager, or being steered by a leader.

Covid-19 didn’t come with a rule book, previous experience or anything else to tell managers what to do. True leaders can deal with the unknown, not just the uncertain. They give their colleagues the confidence and courage to get up and go when hunkering down feels safer. They give both direction and energy to a team when the old rules not only don’t work—they’re irrelevant.

We all sense if we are led by a true leader. Not all managers are leaders. So, what does a ‘true leader’ look like?

Plenty of books have been written on this. (One I highly recommend is The Last Place on Earth by Roland Huntford, which compares polar explorers Scott and Amundsen as leaders in genuinely unknown territory).

Here’s my personal starting point: It’s about the questions you ask.

Data is piling up on every front around Covid-19. Much of it is solving the problems we already know we have. But, what about the problems we have not yet seen?

Leading through the unknown

When the unknown dominates, start asking the questions others aren’t.

Here are a few thought starters:

  • How do you develop your people in a lockdown world?
  • What’s the impact of a world where office banter doesn’t really exist and non-verbal communication is almost nil?
  • What happens to diversity and inclusion in such a low-contact world?
  • How do you keep developing/transforming/fostering your company’s culture?
  • How do you spot and recognise good (and bad) performance when you’re not in the office?

Taking the recognising performance question as an example. I consider this one of the most pressing challenges for leaders. To be sure, most firms did well quickly enabling remote-working when the crisis first hit. But how prepared are leaders for the next phase? What if things are like this for another year? How do leaders embed purpose when they can’t meet face-to-face? How can leaders demonstrate empathy without lowering standards?

When facing the truly unknown, you can only really have a credible plan by asking as many questions as you can. Work out as many scenarios as you can–but also as soundly as you can.

Now more than ever people are looking for leaders to navigate this strange new world. They know it is different now. They want to know that you know that, too. They want to know that you are constantly thinking it through and are using everything you can. They don’t need you to be right all the time. In fact they want to know that you can admit to being wrong… and are big enough to say so. Following yesterday’s rule book isn’t good enough today.

It’s your interest in the questions, not only the answers that set you up to be a true leader.