Monthly Archives: April 2013

Asking great questions

“I have learned that leadership is not about knowing all the answers. It’s about knowing what great questions to ask, and carefully listening to those answers.”      – Patrick Thng, managing director, Development Bank of Singapore

As we end our month focusing on effective communication, it’s important to remember that one of our best tools in leading others and communicating effectively is in asking great questions.

In his book, “Leading with Questions,” Michael Marquardt describes how leaders are able to transform their organizations just by asking questions that empower others. It’s a fantastic resource that I would encourage all leaders to read.

Great questions cause people to focus and stretch, they create deep reflection. They can challenge assumptions or generate positive action. Here are some examples of great questions that Marquardt provides in his book:

  • What do you think about…..?
  • What possibilities come to mind?
  • What do you think you will lose if you give up..[the point under discussion]?
  • Can that be done in any other way?
  • What other options can we think of?
  • What is stopping us?
  • Can you help me understand….?

It seems I was born asking the question “why?” so asking questions comes naturally to me. Still, I find that I must work continually to ask great questions that will help inspire, motivate, and empower others. What questions have you used that have been effective in leading others?

Anita Rios


Listening for other points of view

This month we’ve been looking at the MnSCU leadership competency identified as Communicates Effectively.  One of the attributes of this competency is “Listens carefully and understands differing points of view.”

We’re all familiar with a variety of active listening skills.  It’s important to know how to focus, be present, and paraphrase what the other person is saying.   We also know the importance of understanding differing points of view.  Earlier blog posts have provided some tools for seeking out differences and welcoming diverse viewpoints to the table.

While none of the listening skills described above are easy, actually making changes in my thoughts and behavior is even harder.  I recently found a challenging list of questions that help to indicate whether my leadership behaviors demonstrate this competency.

Leadership Questions*

  • What major area have I changed my mind about in the last three months?
  • How long has it been since my assumptions about something important were absolutely dead wrong?
  • What have I learned this semester that makes my actions last semester seem less effective?
  • Who am I close to who thinks very differently than I do, and what have I learned from that person?
  • What was the last skill I learned with my colleagues?  What was the last skill I learned from my colleagues?
  • How long has it been since I lost an important argument with one of my colleagues?

*Modified from Chip R. Bell, Managers as Mentors, San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 1996

Which of these questions resonate with you?  Which ones are the most challenging?

Dee Anne Bonebright

Up, up and away!

Successful leaders utilize all their resources. We leverage our strengths, manage our weaknesses, and continue to develop our leadership savvy. Leaders also have institutional resources, colleagues and, of course, their teams of people. One resource we often overlook is our own manager. If you are lucky, like I am, you receive information, clear direction, support, and encouragement from your leader.

We can fall into a trap if we view our managers primarily as translators of information or conduits of organizational strategy and not as a part of our work teams. If we think of managers as members of our team then we can actively involve them as we work to accomplish our objectives.  We can “manage up.”

Managing up requires us to rethink our communication strategy when working with our managers. Not only do we need to provide updates, work products, and information, as well as listen to what they have to say, we also want to engage our managers and get them to take action that will remove barriers or help move our projects forward. This is communication for action. Anne Warfield, CEO of Impressions Management Professionals and author of Outcome Thinking: Getting Results, identifies three key principles for communication that leads to outcomes. These principles work for all types of communication but I have found them particularly helpful when communicating and managing up to my manager or when presenting to senior leaders.

First, I need to clearly describe how I, or the project or topic, can add value. Our managers are busy and have their own priorities and projects. Starting with a value proposition resets the stage and clarifies the importance of the topic.

Second, focus on the desired outcome. Avoid process detail and seek agreement on how they can help. This sets the stage for identifying your manager’s role in getting to the desired outcome.

Third, think and speak positively from your manager’s perspective. You are asking them to take action, so define how the outcome is aligned with their priorities.

Together these three principles shift your communication from sharing information with your manager to managing up and communicating for active engagement in your work.

Todd Thorsgaard

Preparing your message

Last week I had a 20-minute presentation I prepared for 24 senior leaders in our organization to obtain feedback and buy-in for a succession planning initiative. As it happened, their meeting was running behind and the chairperson informed me that I now had 8-1/2 minutes to get my message across.

Luckily, knowing my audience, I did not have a long powerpoint, but a 3-page handout and a few talking points that I had to deliver. My short message generated lots of questions and resulted in agreement for moving forward. Whew!

Not all my presentations have gone that well, but I’ve learned over time to focus more on tailoring my message for a specific audience. And with this particular presentation, I was focused on two things: what I wanted to achieve through succession planning and what I needed senior leaders to do as a result of our discussion.

The Communications Leadership Council* reinforces and expands upon this approach,  suggesting that when preparing executive communications, there are three important questions you should ask.

First think about connecting your message to the business objective, by asking yourself:

1) What are you trying to achieve and why is it so important?

Next, to enable audience action, think about:

2) What do you want the audience to do as a result of the communication?

Lastly, to provoke dialogue, ask:

3) What question do you want the audience to ask themselves after the communication?

It’s a simple triage process, but narrowing down your message to these key points can be a challenge. When you are passionate about an initiative or effort, it’s so tempting to include lots of detailed information.

When you’ve had to prepare a brief presentation that requires action on the audience’s part, what has worked best for you?

Anita Rios

*For information on the Communications Leadership Council, see:

The power of small events

How much influence do you truly believe you have on the motivation and performance levels of the people you lead? There are times when it feels like my actions are just a drop in the bucket of their work life and I am unsure if I am making a difference.  Do you ever feel that way? And how does this relate to our topic of communication?

I recently took a class from Teresa Glomb, Ph.D. She is the McFarland Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota and her recent research demonstrates how powerful communication and small leadership actions are in improving performance and employee engagement. (Miner, A. G., Glomb, T. M. 2010.  State mood, task performance, and behavior at work: A within-persons approach.) In contrast to most of the research on motivation and employee engagement, she has identified how important small daily shifts in mood and emotions are to overall performance. Her work suggests that the sporadic opportunities we have to communicate with our people may be as important or even more important than larger organizational initiatives and programs.

What does this look like and how can we use this information? During a project I led a few years ago I asked employees what was most motivating for them at work. This is what I heard; “It wasn’t one big thing but just a number of little actions”, “during our busy day she would just drop in”, “He would ask how we were doing?”, “it would pick me up”, “I felt good”, “It was clear we were important” and “I felt recharged.”  Their comments suggest that as leaders, we just need to look for moments to talk with our people and to communicate at a personal level.

Small drops in the bucket do add up!

Todd Thorsgaard

Leading when things are hard

This is the second time since we started this blog last November that I’ve been staring at a blank screen and trying to figure out what to say about leadership when the world is a hard place.  By the time you read this we’ll know more, but right now all I know is that someone in Boston, for whatever reason, decided to cause tragedy in the midst of a celebration.

I don’t even know what to think about it.  Frankly, my mind is just tired.  This could be because we in Minnesota are in the midst of the-spring-that-wouldn’t-come and were already feeling grumpy about life in general.  But it’s also because I’m just sad.  My college-age daughter asked me after hearing about the marathon bombings if the world was getting worse, or if she was just getting older and noticing more.  I didn’t have an answer.

Then I remembered a TED talk by Harvard’s Rosabeth Moss Kanter in which she talked about leadership skills for making the world a better place.  Listening to her advice helped.  She proposed six leadership actions that we can all take to keep things moving in a positive direction.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s Six Leadership Skills

Show up: be present and engaged
– How can you make a difference?

Speak up: use the power of voice
– What is the problem and how can you help shape the agenda?

Look up: focus on vision and values
– What bigger issues do you stand for?

Team up: create partnerships
– How can we align our mutual efforts?

Never give up: everything can look like a failure in the middle
– How can you create success, even if it wasn’t the one you were looking for?

Life others up: share success and give back
– How can you help other people feel elevated?

Instead of sitting around and being sad, I’m going to pick one of these actions and do something useful.  Maybe you can do the same.

Dee Anne Bonebright

Communicating executive presence

Recently as I’ve been working with executive searches, it has become extraordinarily clear, that regardless of a candidate’s accomplishments and excellent work history, those who succeeded further than others in the search process, had a “presidential” quality or what I might term as “executive presence.” Interestingly enough, this anecdotal evidence about “executive presence” is backed by a 2012 study by the Center for Talent Innovation. They found that executive presence accounts for 25% of what it takes to get promoted to director-level and above positions.

So, what if you want to develop your own executive presence in order to move into higher levels of leadership? Executive presence sounds rather ambiguous, something that you might only know when you see it.

Fortunately, the Center for Talent Innovation, has helped demystify the concept, by identifying three key elements that comprise executive presence:

  •     Gravitas, or the ability to project confidence, poise under pressure, and decisiveness
  •     Communication, which comprises excellent speaking skills, assertiveness, and the ability to read an audience or situation
  •     Appearance—looking polished and pulled together

As you think about your leadership development, where might you need to strengthen your executive presence? Do you need to project more confidence? Polish up your speaking skills? Or update your appearance?

Anita Rios

Thinking and communicating

One of my biggest challenges around leadership communication is that everyone doesn’t see things the same way.  Sometimes I’m surprised that what seems obvious to me isn’t clear at all to other people.  And sometimes people just disagree with my way of looking at issues. When I’m working with teams I need to challenge myself and my colleagues to be open to many different viewpoints.

There are a variety of tools and strategies that can help individuals and teams stretch into new ways of thinking. One of my favorites is Edward de Bono’s six thinking hats.  If you’re not familiar with the tool, check out the Six Thinking Hats book or the description on MindTools.  Of course, my own style makes some hats fit me better than others. Here’s how I approach the tool. What might work for you?

white hatThe white hat is about information and data.  I like this hat a lot, but I’ve learned that I’m picky about the accessories; I prefer words to numbers.  So I have to be sure I’m looking at everything I should. On the other hand, I really like information, so I also need to be clear about when it’s time to stop looking at data and move on.

red hatThe red hat is about intuition and emotion. This hat is less comfortable for me, and I have to remember to pay attention to people’s reactions. Who will care about this decision, and how can I help them feel positive about it?

black hatThe black hat reminds us about potential down sides to a decision. Nothing is perfect, so how can we plan for what might go wrong?  Remembering the black hat is very helpful to me when seeking and hearing critical feedback about my plans.

yellow hatThe yellow hat is about positivity. This thinking style helps individuals and teams keep going when things get hard.  I have to admit my yellow hat is pretty shiny and new. I need to use it more often. I also seek people on my team to help provide this view.

green hatThe green hat represents thinking creatively. This is my favorite hat. Mine is well worn, with embroidery and beadwork designs scattered on it. (They’re mostly unfinished, but that’s another story.) I need to remember to focus my creative energies around the problem that needs to be solved. I also need to help other people see my vision. And most important, I need to know when it’s time to quit brainstorming, put on the other hats, and get things done.

blue hatThe blue hat represents the thinking process. It’s worn when chairing a meeting or managing a decision making process.  It helps leaders effectively use the diverse ways of thinking and communicating.

Which of these hats is your favorite standby?  Which one needs more attention?

Dee Anne Bonebright

Conversations to build accountability and commitment

Earlier in my career I was involved in a successful health care organizational transformation that required employees to commit to a new way of working and new ways of working together. One of the most memorable and powerful activities we utilized were small group dialogues with all 10,000 employees. Each person was invited to view our work from our patient’s perspective and to talk about where we were failing and what we could do to truly make a difference in our patient’s lives. We welcomed all ideas and encouraged diverse opinions and even disagreement. We had honest and even tearful declarations and powerful insights. These small group conversations were brought up time and again over the years as a key reason for the personal commitment physicians and staff had to remake our organization.

In a similar manner, Peter Block in his book, Community: The Structure of Belonging, challenges us as leaders to create conversations in the workplace that engage our people and invite them to commit to the transformative work we all face.

Block identifies six different types of conversations, each with a specific purpose, which leaders can utilize to create accountability and commitment. You can set up these “conversations that count” by crafting meaningful questions and then listening to what is said. The dialogue will drive the specific questions for the next conversation.

 1. Invitation – provide the freedom to self-enroll

  • Define the problem or hurdle
  • Reinforce their importance to the conversation
  • Provide the freedom to choose their own participation

2. Possibility – postpone problem-solving and focus on opportunity

  • What crossroad are we at?
  • What possibility has the power to transform?
  • What can we create that will make a difference?

3. Ownership – confront people with their freedom

  • How valuable do you want this to be?
  • How much risk are you willing to take?
  • How much are you planning to participate?

4. Dissent – surface doubts and dissent without having all the answers yet

  • What doubts or reservations do you have?
  • What do you want to say no to?
  • What yes don’t you really mean?
  • What previous commitment or decision have you changed you mind about?

5. Commitment – demand authentic commitment or ask people to say no and get to the committed few

  • What promises am I willing to make now?
  • What measures or outcomes have meaning to me?
  • What commitment am I unwilling to make?

6. Gifts – identify what your people have to offer and bring their strengths to the center

  • What unique contributions did someone provide?
  • What did someone do that was valuable or powerful to you?
  • How did someone engage you in a way that had meaning or importance?

As leaders we can create the questions that matter in our situation and invite our team members to participate in these conversations. Setting the context for these types of conversations and truly listening to the dialogue builds the true commitment and accountability needed for transformation.

Todd Thorsgaard

The case for internal communications

About a month ago, I was in a lunch and learn session for managers, where the topic focused on what gets in the way of effective management. As we talked, the entire conversation landed on  various levels of frustration with internal communication. Lack of communication between departments. Lack of transparency with major initiatives, so that managers could align their work with the organization’s goals. And lack of regular communications from the top, so that employees could be effective ambassadors for the organization. We talked about how peoples’ natural tendency is to fill in the blanks and make something up, when communication is not clear.

Sound familiar? It might.  Here are some sobering findings from a poll of 23,000 employees from a number of companies and industries, cited by Steven Covey in his book “The 8th Habit.”

  • Only 37 percent said they have a clear understanding of what their organization is trying to achieve and why
  • Only one in five was enthusiastic about their team’s and their organization’s goals
  • Only one in five said they had a clear “line of sight” between their tasks and their team’s and organization’s goals
  • Only 15 percent felt that their organization fully enables them to execute key goals
  • Only 20 percent fully trusted the organization they work for

Effective internal communications are critical for ensuring that employees are informed and focus their attention on meeting the organization’s objectives. Studies show that a consistent internal communications program can result in

  • higher employee engagement
  • increased productivity
  • stronger employee retention

In fact, when employees are well informed about an organization’s objectives and priorities and understand how their role contributes to the organization, they can be the organization’s greatest advocates.

But how do you go about improving internal communication? A colleague of mine shared a wonderful resource from that advised conducting an audit of existing internal communications initiatives, by answering the following questions:

1. Methods: What are the methods you’re currently using for internal communications?

2. Resources: Who is involved in your communications initiatives?

3. Tools: What systems, programs and formats are you using?

4. Effectiveness: How are you measuring the effectiveness of your communications programs?

Here are a few examples of communication tools or formats that INXPO lists that can improve internal communications:

Communicating down (executives to employees)

  • Monthly or quarterly “town hall style” meetings, broadcast via the web
  • Monthly “fireside chat” program, featuring your CEO on webcam
  • Regular broadcasts featuring the leaders of each major unit or department
  • Quarterly “HR Update” broadcast from the VP of Human Resources

Communicating up (employees to executives)

  • “Let’s Brainstorm,” an interactive program for business leaders to solicit ideas from anyone in the organization
  • CEO Chat,  moderated Q&A with employees

Communicating across (peer interactions)

  • “Idea Storms” regular sessions where employees provide presentations on new ideas and receive feedback from peers
  • “Social Walls,” enabling employees to exchange ideas in an asynchronous manner.

What internal communications have you found most effective in your work?

Anita Rios