2 min read

How to Serve the Room: Ask Better Questions for Leadership Success

This newsletter is brought to you by Not An MBA, the accelerated executive leadership programme that transforms your life and work in just 8 weeks, for less than $4,000. Feb 2023 enrolments are open now.

In local government, many elected members think they need to be approachable and responsive to their constituents. They personally follow up service requests, enquire about project details and challenge decisions made by Council staff.

Here's what they don't realise:

  • They're perpetrating inequality - giving privileged access to the few people who approach them instead of following proper channels

  • They're driving down productivity - tying up management time with emails and queries that should be spent on bigger picture issues

  • They're misdirecting their focus - getting stuck in the weeds makes it harder to have important conversations about the legacy they want to leave as leaders.

  • They're creating conflict - by challenging staff decisions, they're implying incompetence, despite having only a small piece of the relevant information. This creates an environment of defensiveness and mistrust, making it harder to work well together on the big stuff.

Effective leaders serve the whole audience

In public speaking, speakers are taught to use audience questions to serve the room. If someone asks about a specific problem in their work or life, a good speaker will draw a theme from their request and answer it in a way that serves the entire audience.

If someone asks about how to deal with their micromanaging boss on an IT project, the public speaker might say: "Thanks for your question. Managing up can be tricky for everyone, but here are three ways people can build trust with their manager..."

That way, everyone learns and takes something away.

Effective leaders, in any industry, do the same thing. When they're faced with an operational issue or problem, they don't get stuck into working out the details, or going on a personal crusade that disempowers their staff. Instead, they interrogate the wider forces at play, and see if there is a barrier they can remove, a system they can improve, or a relationship they can influence, which would help everyone and dissolve these kinds of problems at the root.

Elevate your questions, accelerate progress

Next time you want to ask about a specific, operational issue - especially one where you've assumed incompetence of someone else doing a job you don't really understand - level up your question.

For elected members, that means instead of asking about a pothole, interrogate what it's really about. Your question might choose to focus on things like:

  • Service response times

  • Customer satisfaction trends

  • Contractor performance

  • Renewals funding.

For senior leaders, that means instead of asking about a missed client deadline, interrogate what it's really about. Your question might focus on things like:

  • Client onboarding processes

  • Communication workflows

  • Resourcing

  • Clarity on the terms of engagement.

When you elevate your questions, you better serve the whole.

The future belongs to the curious

Technology and AI are accelerating at a breakneck pace. Before long, the technical skills we've focused on will be old news, replaced by an algorithm and machine learning.

When that happens, it will only be the leaders who've developed strategic skills that remain employable and effective. Learning to see the bigger picture, ask better questions and think in systems are skills you can take to any job or industry - and the people you serve will be better for it.


Five Skills for Leading Strategic Conversations

Five Skills for Leading Strategic Conversations

Leadership used to be a pretty straightforward affair. The boss knew all the things, and told all the people who worked for them what to do. Nice....

Is The Pain Real? Precedent, Phantom and Projection

Is The Pain Real? Precedent, Phantom and Projection

One of the worst things I’ve experienced in my adult life was a horrific abscess I had in my tooth when I was 22. I was immobilised with pain and...