Editor’s Note: Grace Ueng is CEO of Savvy Growth, a leadership coaching and management consultancy founded in 2003.  Her great passion to help leaders and the companies they run achieve their fullest potential combined with her empathy and ability to help executives figure out their “why” is what clients value most.  Grace writes a regular column for WRAL TechWire to help readers become happier and therefore, better leaders.


RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – You’ve heard me talk about the importance of asking the right questions.  The best leaders are not those that have the right answers, but those that ask the right questions.  I often share with prospective clients that when we are hired as consultants, we are paid to have the right answers, and when we are hired as coaches, we are paid to ask the right questions.

The power of Humble Inquiry

Edgar Schein of MIT Sloan School is renowned for his organizational culture work in humble Inquiry.  His thesis is that asking questions bolstered by an attitude of genuine curiosity and interest in the other person, is the foundation of building strong teams that have true interdependency, yielding the best outcomes.  Interest in another person is an important step in building any relationship.  In addition to asking a question, one can also share something personal about themselves, in hopes that their colleague might reciprocate (Vulnerability Creates Reciprocity).

Google created “g2g” or Googler-to-Googler led by over 6,000 Googlers, where colleagues help each other;  everyone is both a learner and a teacher and this reciprocity promotes a culture of psychological safety. From 1-on-1 mentoring to teaching courses on leadership to python coding, this web of helping each other has upskilled a huge number of their employees.

Lunch, or better yet, Dinner

Schein shares a situation when a medical leader was choosing his surgical team. A critical part of the selection process was taking them to lunch to understand how they share and build personal trust.  The leader considered it of utmost importance for every team member to practice humble inquiry, and therefore have true interdependency, in order to yield the best clinical outcome for the patient.

A client of ours would take that step one further and before deciding on a critical hire, she would invite the candidate and their partner to dinner to see them in a different light.  This step also showed how this CEO is truly interested and cares for her team as human beings. Taking the time to really get to know her potential team member helps her to make better hires. Asian cultures are rooted in getting to know potential partners over long meals, building the relationship before any true business takes place.

Rules of Thumb for the right questions:

In Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmonson’s book, The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth, she shares these rules of thumb in asking the right questions.  This is a precursor to psychological safety.

  1. You don’t know the answer.
  2. Don’t ask questions that limit the response to yes or no.
  3. You phrase the question in a way that helps others share their thinking in a focused way.

Power Questions

Attributes of a power question that provokes, inspires and shifts people’s thinking:

  1. Generates curiosity in the listener.
  2. Stimulates reflective conversation.
  3. Is thought provoking.
  4. Surfaces underlying assumptions.
  5. Invites creativity and new possibilities.
  6. Generates energy and forward movement.
  7. Channels attention and focuses inquiry.
  8. Stays with participants.
  9. Touches a deep meaning.
  10. Evokes more questions.

Broaden or Deepen

To  broaden thinking and expand an option set, key questions include:  “What might we be missing?”  “What other ideas could we generate?” “Who has a different perspective?”

To deepen understanding and pressure test a solution, key questions include: “What leads you to think so?”  “Can you give me an example?” 

 This kind of inquiry makes team members know that their opinion matters, not just that of the boss.

 Ask versus Tell.  How to broaden away from a culture of telling.

In our culture of telling, asking often gets short shrift.  Genuinely sincere questions don’t make leaders weak, but thoughtful and wise. When leaders ask genuine questions, it fosters psychological safety. In a hospital setting, a leader could ask, “Was everything as safe as you would have liked it to be this week with your patients?

The discussion these questions generate is crucial to understand each other’s expertise and goals.  Instead of being limited to a “yes” culture, nurturing one of humble inquiry to broaden and build thinking will make your company more competitive. Get the most out of the good thinkers you’ve hired, be curious about what they think, not just directing them on what you think.

Do you do more telling or asking?  This week, how can you improve this ratio?

About Grace Ueng

Grace is CEO of Savvy Growth, a leadership coaching and management consultancy founded in 2003.  Her great passion to help leaders and the companies they run achieve their fullest potential combined with her empathy and ability to help leaders figure out their “why” are what clients value most.

Grace’s core offerings are one on one coaching for CEOs and their leadership teams, facilitating workshops on Personal Branding and Speaking Success and conducting strategic reviews for companies at a critical juncture. A TED speaker, she is hired to give motivational keynotes and lead Happiness Works programs for companies and campuses.

A marketing strategist, Grace held leadership roles at five high growth technology ventures that successfully exited through acquisition or IPO. She started her career at Bain & Company and then worked in brand management at Clorox and General Mills. She is a graduate of MIT and Harvard Business School and holds a positive coaching certification from the Whole Being Institute.

Grace and her partner, Rich Chleboski, a cleantech veteran, develop and implement strategies to support the growth of impact focused companies and then coach their leaders in carrying out their strategic plans. Their expertise spans all phases of the business from evaluation through growth and liquidity.