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