Asking Good Questions

Asking Good Questions

Do you ask good questions?

I was discussing my background recently and I came to realize that what I have done in my past isn’t typically the route most others take. From what I’ve observed, people choose to specialize in a certain role, or industry, or company size, and then spend their career climbing the ladder from one rung to the other. Oftentimes this works unless your skill set or industry experience becomes irrelevant because of the shifting marketplace. I on the other hand, have chosen to take a more generalist approach. As of this point, I have seen financial services, manufacturing, construction, and now healthcare. Within those sectors, I typically did either an accounting or finance role, sometimes specializing in financial reporting, sometimes analysis, but although the job titles were similar, the work I did was very different. For example, manufacturing requires the ability to understand costing systems, which typically center around the standard costing method. On the other hand, construction tends to be centered around job costing and the horizons are much longer on those types of projects. Both of these examples may sound the same to the lay person, but in application they have very different approaches.

Rainbow spotted over Covington, Kentucky

I have tried in hindsight to discern what it is that helped me learn those skills. I have thought it was because I happened to be conscientious about my work. I’ve also wondered if it was because I had the ability to focus on details and work out expansive puzzles that seemed to have more problems than solutions. However, in the end I found out what the secret was: I knew how to ask the right questions and get the right answers that I needed. This process, when folded out into a conversation where one is the “asker” and the other the “askee”, becomes in effect an interview.

Interviewing in its basic form involves questions and answers. However, it’s the quality of questions you ask and how intently you listen to the answers that matters most. Of course, we always run into people who rarely elaborate on their answers, choosing yes or no responses, and those others who go off into tangents. I have found that you can control for both and still get a lot of value from the conversation simply by redirecting and asking the right follow ups. In fact, I have discovered that this back and forth can not only get you up to speed on certain ideas or problems, but can also catapult you into new insights you might not have had before.

In my experience, there are right ways and wrong ways to interview when I’m trying to learn more about how to do something. Typically, I like to start off by establishing what I want to know up front and then follow up with a probing question or two, get an answer to those, then ask more questions to see if I can circle back to the first answer to make sure they’re consistent. Once that happens, I know I’ve learned something. This works great for one on ones, however, in group settings things get muddled because you can’t always keep control of the conversation and someone may mistake your opening questions for a lack of awareness about the problem. In fact, I rarely open a line of questioning without knowing the answer first, but this can be a danger as people try to establish expertise over you, which can damage your credibility. The best bet is just to take your conversation offline and out of the meeting space.

Now, this approach to work is only effective if there’s knowledgeable people you can access. Talking to someone who does the minimum at their job is a waste of time. You want the “nuts and bolts” person. I discovered that when a knowledgeable person wasn’t available in my near vicinity, I could at least find people in operations or sales who both had knowledge and were willing to share it so I could get up to speed. I could then take those findings and reverse engineer processes to find out how to get my job done. This has saved me ultimately lots of time and frustration and even established some good working relationships because it showed them that I cared about what they were doing.

Overall, being able to talk to people and learn from them has not only helped me professionally but it has also led me to find business problems I could solve and thus add value to an organization. Of course, finding new ways to add value is what ultimately grows your career and makes you more marketable. I would suggest to others to make a point out of identifying and establishing relationships with knowledge leaders and to keep an open dialogue with them. Then, learn how to talk to people so they share the knowledge you need to create action. Doing this can do wonders for what you’re trying to accomplish.