Leading Questions

Instead of offering a solution to every problem, teach people to solve their own

Topics: Mentoring and Coaching, Professional Development

No matter what someone’s title or role is in their organization, they can grow their leadership skills. As leadership guru John C. Maxwell says, “Everyone is a leader, because everyone influences someone.”

In my school community, one of the five key long-term goals is to “grow leaders who grow other leaders.” So, when the district’s leaders approached me about becoming a certified principal mentor through NAESP, I jumped at the chance.

I learned something from every aspect of the training, but my favorite part focused on effective questioning. The NAESP cohort’s facilitator provided participants with a single-page reference sheet detailing several different categories of questions and question stems for each, such as:

  • Questions that get things started: “What were you expecting when…?”
  • Questions that support planning: “What specific actions do you think you’ll take?”
  • Questions that support reflection: “Based on this experience, what will you do differently in the future?”

Once we had studied the question stems, a facilitator asked us to get into groups of three: one playing the role of a protégé, who shared a current issue they faced professionally; one playing the mentor, who was asked to provide leading questions to help the protégé think through the options and come to some action steps on their own, offering no direct advice; and a third to take notes and keep time. We then proceeded through sample scenarios, changing roles every eight minutes.

The exercise wasn’t as simple or easy as it sounds because people come to principals with questions every day, and we’re expected to have answers. To turn off that instinct to solve, fix, and offer advice was much harder than I anticipated. But the more we practiced listening and asking questions to guide the person we were coaching to reflect on the situation and possible action steps, the better each of us got at it. The best part? The person sharing their struggle always came to a solution or next step on their own.

It was a wonderful lesson because it helped me realize that I can’t grow my people if I solve every problem they bring to me. If experienced principals give great advice to assistant principals and aspiring administrators in our lives every time they have a problem, they will come back to us to get more advice because we haven’t taught them to solve their own problems. Instead, we’ve taught them that we hold all the answers.

In order to truly grow others, we should work to ask questions that guide people to think through all aspects of their problem, as well as multiple ways that they can solve those problems. It’s akin to the “Teach a man to fish” axiom, but in this case it’s “Give a leader advice, and you help her for a day. Ask a leader purposeful questions, and you help her for a lifetime.”

Monstrous Advice

Although I came to this epiphany during the training exercise described above, I still struggle to come up with questions to help the person I’m working with. In his book The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever, Michael Bungay Stanier calls this feeling of urgency to share the first piece of advice that pops into our heads “the Advice Monster.”

“You have the best of intentions to stay curious and ask a few good questions,” he writes. “But in the moment, just as you are moving to that better way of working, the Advice Monster leaps out of the darkness and hijacks the conversation. Before you realize what’s happening, your mind is turned toward finding the answer, and you’re leaping in to offer ideas, suggestions, and recommend ways forward.”

Here’s why this is a problem: We often don’t even know the details of the situation, yet we’re already confident we have the answer. The hard truth that we all need to face is that even if we’ve solved a similar problem before, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the same solution will work for the person we are mentoring.

When a growing leader shares a problem, keep the questions simple to get them to reflect, share their thinking, and brainstorm possible action steps, such as:

  • How are you going to handle that?
  • How do you think the person (or team, or staff) will react?
  • How do you think that will shape the behavior?
  • What is a way you could handle the situation differently?

Stanier cautions mentors to “remember that the first answer someone gives you is almost never the only answer, and it’s rarely the best answer.” So our work to grow new leaders must include asking questions to get others to explore multiple solutions and the implications of each to figure out which is the best and why. In this way, we can guide others through the process of solving their own problems so that they soon won’t need our backup.

So, stop giving advice and start asking questions. As you practice the art of questioning in order to better coach and mentor others in your life, be careful not to ask yes-or-no questions, nor to ask questions that disguise your advice (“Have you considered doing this?). This doesn’t help the other person find their own solutions.

Keep in mind that your goal is not to solve the other person’s problem but to ask the right questions to guide the person to solve the problem on their own. The goal is to coach the person in thinking things through.

As I have practiced the skill of using questioning instead of advice-​giving, I’ve learned to stop myself when advice pops into my brain and instead choose to ask questions that help the other person to reflect, process, and think about next steps.

Meredith Akers is principal of Rennell Elementary in Cypress, Texas.