Nearly every year for the last six years, I’ve conducted research interviews with senior business leaders. I’m halfway through this year’s interviews and thought I’d share one of the themes that is emerging …
Nike says, “Just do it.” These leaders say, “Just ask.”
Ask … then listen. I asked these senior executives, “What are the most important leadership skills you’ve had to learn to make the transition from being an expert individual contributor to an effective leader of people,” they answered, “listening” more than any other skill.
Ask … to learn. As one executive said, “I learn a lot more by listening than by talking.” (Note: verbalizing what you’re learning, though, is a good way to help ingrain it in your brain.)
Ask … before you advise. Most of us are too quick to give advice. Asking and listening first often helps you better understand a situation or person. Then, you’ll be better able to judge whether and when you need to give advice – and what that advice should be.
Ask … to develop others. Effective leaders look to develop others. They ask their direct reports questions like, “Sounds like a tough situation. What do you think we should do?” This gives people a chance to stretch and learn versus just executing directions.
Ask … for help. Of the senior leaders I interviewed, almost everyone said they wished they would have learned to ask for help earlier in their careers. Whether asking for advice from their boss or an expert on a project, asking someone to be their mentor, asking a peer or direct report for their opinion or involvement … all are important ways to learn, accelerate performance, collaborate and build trust.
Ask … for feedback. Effective leadership requires self-awareness. And self-awareness requires feedback from others – to point out blind spots, to tell us our impact on them, to provide objectivity and accountability and to help us improve.
Ask … to demonstrate that you care. Demonstrating that you care about someone is key to building relationships, trust and loyalty. And it helps builds employee engagement, retention, productivity and profitability. As one leader I interviewed put it, “People have told me they’d walk through walls for me. That’s because they know I care about them. I make it a point to ask them about their lives more broadly than just work. I want to get to know them as individual people.” Sometimes we need to be reminded that business and leading is ultimately about caring for and serving people.
Thanks to those I’ve recently interviewed for sharing their leadership lessons. I’m glad I asked.
Joe Baker is a Partner with PeopleResults. In his work as a leadership consultant and executive coach, he helps senior executives grow in their ability to “just ask.” You can reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter @JoeBakerJr.