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Building & Leading High-Performance Teams-7 Questions Leaders Ask

By Karen Kuhla (2243 words)
Posted in Leadership & Teambuilding on February 10, 2014

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Effective leaders ask many questions – and listen to the answers they receive.  Great leaders act on what they hear.

A right of passage for first year cadets (plebes) at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point (USMA) requires the memorization of a wide range of information and the accurate recitation of the details when requested by upperclassmen.  The objective of the exercise, according to the guidebook of the time, was to develop memory retention skills and the ability to perform under pressure.  I was never very good at this and can still recall, many years later, the intense pressure that a demand from an upperclassman for immediate response to a question elicited.  I confess that I was initially skeptical of the value of a drill that often seemed to be little more than harassment.


Fortunately, an experience during my first year at USMA provided a valuable lesson for a new, developing leader.  Early one morning, I observed our company Tactical Officer (the TAC is a combat-seasoned commissioned officer charged with preparing cadets to lead Soldiers upon commissioning) as he asked a number of upperclassmen the same questions they had only moments before asked of the plebes.  Each of them, uniformly unable to answer the question, nervously responded: “Sir, memorization and recitation of information is for the plebes, not for the senior cadets.”  To this the TAC patiently replied: “That may well be, but I’ve heard you ask, and receive answers to, these questions this morning.  If you’re going to be an effective leader, it is important to ask many questions; but you also must listen to the answers provided by those you lead.” 


High-performance military units consistently have very effective leadership teams.  These leaders know how to set objectives, communicate course of action, adjust to changing conditions, and are adept at constantly improving performance by observing their teams in action.  The very best of these leaders also build on those observations by asking a great many questions. 


The requirement for effective leaders to ask tough questions of the members of their team, and then really listen and act upon the answers they receive, is true in the Army and in business.  Great leaders go further by asking themselves the toughest questions and then act to address the challenges that the answers pose.  Asking questions and listening to answers opens a dialogue that dramatically improves organizations, develops leaders, builds resiliency and enables the achievement of growth objectives.


What’s good for the general is also good for the corporate leader!

What questions do you ask, and how well do you listen to the answers?  A few questions that the very best leaders ask – of themselves and the members of their team – are offered below.


Building & Leading High-Performance Teams-7 Questions Leaders Ask


Do I have a clear vision of where the organization is going?  Have I articulated that vision in a clear and meaningful way to the members of my team? 


Most business leadership teams spend a great deal of time and money developing “strategies” to achieve growth objectives, reach new markets, and gain new customers.  These sessions produce glossy booklets and (sometimes) impressive PowerPoint presentations intended to communicate the corporate vision and the strategy for achieving its objectives.  Now, or after your next strategic planning cycle, ask employees at each level of the organization to describe, in his or her own words, the organization’s vision and strategic plan.  If the responses you receive are even close to the words articulated in your booklets and presentations, congratulations – you’ve got an organizational communications process that is better than most!  More likely: you will hear a wide range of interpretations that become increasingly inaccurate the farther you get from the C-suite.


Have I placed the welfare of the organization first?  Put another way, have I fallen victim to confusing my personal objectives and ambitions with those of the organization?

Senior level leaders are almost always smart, creative, effective communicators, and have good interpersonal skills.  These skills, together with high energy and drive, enable them to achieve impressive results and lead to recognition and promotion.  All too often, these qualities reside in tandem with unchecked ambition and an oversized ego – with sometimes - disastrous results for the organization and the individual.  With very senior leaders, and in organizations with hierarchical structures, the risk increases.  Ask your superiors, peers, and subordinates to assess your performance (and make this a part of your leader development program for all of your organization’s leaders).  You may, or may not, be gratified by the feedback you receive, but you will be a better leader and executive for your business if you process this feedback and take action.  Every great athlete, general, and business executive gets better with a coach.  More than a few promising leaders would have averted a fall from the pedestal had they benefited from the observations, counsel and recommendations of a good executive coach.  While more often than not a humbling experience, good leaders become great leaders when they confront the image in the mirror with clarity and resolute action.


Have I given the members of my team the resources they require to accomplish the goals that have been given them?

The higher up the chain of command (or closer to the C-suite) a leader lands, the further away from the action they become.  Goals established and decisions made from the rarified atmosphere of the general’s desk or executive’s conference room can be infeasible if the mundane but essential components necessary to turn idea into action are missing, insufficient or inappropriate.  Ask leaders at the task-execution level for their assessments; solicit their ideas and suggestions for how to improve upon the process. Not only might you avert a potentially embarrassing (or worse) failure, you will have demonstrated your commitment to developing leaders and encouraging initiative at all levels of the organization, and you will reinforce your insistence on receiving candid feedback.  Have I established metrics that all members of the team can access to track progress toward and tackle obstacles?


Have I provided a development path for aspiring leaders in the organization? Do members of the team see themselves as having a leadership role in the organization?  Do they receive credit for successes, as well as share responsibility in failure?

From the time a new cadet enters West Point, they are continually groomed to assume new and increasing responsibilities.  Passage through a sequence of comprehensive academic and experiential gateways, together with candid periodic performance and development feedback, provides cadets and officers with unparalleled leadership development opportunity.  While businesses are usually unable to sustain an educational structure anywhere near as robust as the Army’s, executive leaders can and should understand and provide for a climate and structure that encourages career-long growth and advancement.  


Ask your young guns, the super-bright, technically savvy Gen Y/ Millennial men and women: where do they see themselves in 5, 10, or 15 years?  

Their answers may astound, disappoint or amaze, but you can count on their candor.  If your business is going to survive and thrive in the coming decades, your ability to retain and provide a path for growth for these workers may well determine your future.  A caution: beware the siren song of cultivating and promoting only those leaders who are reflections of yourself.  While supremely self-validating to have protégés that “look just like I did when I was at that point in my career”, you will almost certainly pass up better and more effective talent in the process. 


Do the leaders in my organization – especially me – continually learn?  Do the leaders in my organization push each other to stretch, grow and improve?  Have I prepared myself and the team to ensure the organization can respond quickly and effectively to opportunity and adversity?  Have I prepared others to quickly and effectively assume positions of greater responsibility?

These questions should be what every senior leader, in uniform or Brooks Brother’s suit, asks on a daily basis.  Collectively, they define the roadmap for your organization’s future.  Ask your leaders: Are they motivated to excel every day? Do they feel invigorated and pushed to new levels by the talent and intellect of their peers, subordinates and seniors? Do they feel confident that their team and leadership can “handle anything” and “seize the moment” when a new opportunity emerges?  Do they feel they can do their boss’ job – and that of their boss’ boss? Army units – indeed every military unit – have a designated senior leader.  Like their counterparts in industry, these leaders set objectives, make final decisions, and accept responsibility for accomplishment of the assigned mission and the welfare of the team.  The very best Army units are in fact teams of leaders, with individuals at every position empowered to make decisions and take the initiative if the conditions merit and mission accomplishment hangs in the balance.  Business executives will be amazed at how much success their team will enjoy, and how much the bottom line will benefit, by underwriting education and experiential opportunities for their best leaders.


Finally, have I set the example for every member of the team?  Character and ethical behavior are contagious.

This is the most important question a leader asks, and it must be repeated multiple times every day.  Remember the TAC in the opening paragraphs: everyone within eyesight or earshot scrutinized his actions and words.  Had he failed to act, not only would a practice that fell short of the objective have been tolerated, but a valuable lesson would have been lost on a generation of leaders.  Leaders at every level, but especially at the most senior levels of an organization, must view their words, actions, and decisions through an ethical prism that ensures both the perception and the reality are in keeping with the highest standards.  Ask yourself and your leaders how the matter would be viewed in the evening edition of the New York Times.  Ask: “would my family be proud of this decision?” 


Ask away!

Several years ago, while sitting down to what I thought would be a quiet breakfast at an operating base north of Baghdad, Iraq, a young officer no more than a year out of West Point approached me with a great question.  One of the Gen Y/Millennial superstars who will take our nation to new heights in the coming decades; she – like her contemporaries – grew up asking questions and going directly to the source to find answers.  Unimpressed with the organizationally bestowed certifications of rank, and in a style common to her generation, she asked directly and forcefully: “general, what exactly do you do?”  As the dialogue progressed over eggs and coffee, it occurred to me that the lesson I’d been taught so many years prior was as relevant today as it was then.  Leaders, in uniform and industry, make their mark on their organizations by asking tough questions, listening to the answers and then taking action to solve problems, seize opportunities, and accomplish their mission.  On occasion you will also have the opportunity to answer the questions of the people on your team – and just possibly, teach a valuable lesson to a future leader in the process.


{#/pub/images/BrigadierGeneralRetiredMarkONeill.png}Written by Brigadier General Mark O’Neill (retired), faculty contributor for The Thayer Leader Development Group, is a graduate of United States Military Academy, as well as the U.S. Army War College. After serving a distinguished leadership career in uniform, General O’Neill concluded his military career educating the nations future military leadership at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. Brigadier General O’Neill has held Senior Vice President positions with L-3 MPRI and CACI International focused on executive management, strategic planning and organizational change leadership.



{#/pub/images/kuhlakaren.jpg}Contributed by Karen Kuhla, Ph.D., Executive Director of (TLDG) The Thayer Leader Development Group at West Point.  Karen oversees leadership programs for corporate and non-profit organizations utilizing applied academics with experiential learning. Training is conducted by General Officers and Keynote Speakers grounded in the Army’s leadership philosophy “Be, Know, Do” and situated at the historic Thayer Hotel at West Point. Karen has more than 15 years of corporate training experience leading executive leadership programs for Arthur Andersen, LLP, CDR International, a Mercer-Delta Consulting Company, and GE Healthcare’s consulting group delivering GE’s leadership development systems and Change Acceleration Process training to healthcare executives; in March, 2008, she became Global Program Manager, Leadership Development at GE’s Corporate University, Crotonville.



Do you have a question for Karen?  Post it below or in our Executive Leadership Community, she will be happy to help: Ask an Expert


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Here are some additional training articles you may be interested in: 

Emotional Intelligence in the Workplace: How to Develop Yourself & Your Team 

Overcoming Disconnect Between Middle & Upper Management

Strategic Leadership-How Strategic Are You?



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