A “Secret” of Success: Asking Good Questions

Are there any “stories” that people have told you that stuck with you and shaped your thinking — and your career?  Here’s one that has had a great influence on me over the years.

How Do You Do That?

Early on in my career, my boss at the time (a VP-HR) shared with me a story from his prior role as an HR manager at a “name” Fortune-500 company that was (and is) highly regarded for its HR function and management development programs.  Early in his career there, he noticed one particular colleague (Bob) wielding considerable influence in the organization — quietly but consistently.  As Bob wasn’t the most senior person, nor the most well-known, nor the most visible, most technically skilled, etc. , he was quite puzzled by Bob’s out-sized influence.

After a meeting one day, he approached Bob.  “Bob, ” he said, “can I ask you a question?”  “Of course,” he replied.  “What can I do for you?”  “Well, I was just wondering . . . We go to many of the same meetings, and I’ve noticed something about you.  In many of the meetings — since they’re outside of our subject area — I know that you don’t know much more (if anything) about the topic at hand than anyone else in the room.  And in many cases, the topic might be so far out of our field that you seemingly might not have anything to add to the discussion.  Yet, time and time again, I see you helping shape the discussion and, really, guiding the ultimate outcome — even if you didn’t know anything about the issue when the meeting began.”  He said this not with jealousy or skepticism, but with respect (if a bit of bewilderment, too).  “How do you do that?”

Simple Concept, Hard to Apply

Bob paused thoughtfully for a moment to consider the question.  Then, he smiled somewhat shyly and replied, “I guess I always try to ask good questions.”  He let the thought sink in, and explained, “I try to remember that everyone else in the room is much more technically skilled than I am on virtually any issue.  I figure that my best contribution is following the conversation, trying to draw out a critical point or two that might be being left unsaid — or drawing together some dots that need to be addressed before they can be connected.  I guess by doing that, it helps move the meeting along to a result that makes sense for everyone.”

Understated Influence, Outsized Effect

I’ve tried to share this story with any colleagues that I’ve had the opportunity to mentor since that time — usually with the corollary that “asking more questions and making less statements” is often the most effective approach that an HR person can take in a given situation.  Certainly there are times for us to step forward and lead — but in many cases, we can have a much more lasting effect if we remember that the “answer” is usually in the room (as long as we’ve invited the right people into the room) — and, as Bob said, our best contribution is to draw out the answer that’s there for us to discover.

Easy to say; harder to do, of course.  Perhaps something to try — or re-emphasize — in the week ahead.


Have any mentor’s stories deeply influenced your career or how you approach your work?  I’d love to hear them.

One response to “A “Secret” of Success: Asking Good Questions

  1. I love this concept for success. My best mentor did the same, always asked questions in meetings … “seeking first to understand.” I most admired her sincerity and concern for others. I’ll never forget one of her first questions – What energizes you? She wanted to know more about me, what gave me energy, and what work I enjoyed. She was also my boss at the time, and I don’t think I ever had as much fun or worked as hard for anyone!

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