Want Answers? Start by Asking the Right Questions

January 27, 2017

Want Answers? Start by Asking the Right Questions

Today's human resource leaders face daunting tasks in making hiring decisions in a fast-paced, information-rich environment. With hundreds of resumes and a wide range of skill sets, it is critical for senior executives in HR to have the best tools at their disposal to make real-time decisions with long-term consequences. In my experience, knowing how to ask the right questions can help you sort through the options, clarify objectives, and make the best decision possible. 


The key is to asking questions is to know the kinds of questions that, in this case, fit human resource decision-making. Good leaders are adept at asking strategic questions. Strategic questions deepen understanding and clarify objectives enabling you to look over the horizon. By asking more of these questions—of yourself and others—you articulate goals, set benchmarks, and assess risk. You become a better thinker and a smarter leader.


Strategic questions zoom out and look at the big picture. They ask about long-term goals, interests, and priorities. They consider alternatives, consequences, and risks. These questions help you identify the best people for the job. They sharpen the focus on the larger objective and clarify what it will take to get there. So what are these strategic questions that should drive good decisions - looking at people and strategy across an organization?


The Big Question. What are you trying to do? Why? What difference will it make? Start at 20,000 feet. The Oxford Dictionary defines strategic as “relating to the identification of long-term or overall aims and interests and the means of achieving them.” Ask whether everyone is even ready to think strategically. Ask about the mission. What’s in play? What’s at stake, and what is the strategic, long-range purpose or objective?


Cost and Consequence. How will you achieve your objective? What exactly is involved? If you don’t succeed, what are the consequences? How will they affect the business, the bottom line, the organizational profile, or real-world activities? Get specific. What’s the cost? Ask how your plan and its component pieces translate strategic objectives into metrics and outcomes, based on the time, resources, and objectives.


Trade-offs. What’s the downside? What are the risks? What are you not thinking about? Trade-offs are built into any big decision. For example, you can make more money but will have less free time; you can fix the bottom line but will have to lay off workers; you can liberate a country but will cause damage and death. Trade-off questions openly, sometimes defiantly, ask about risk and downsides. They ask people to calculate when there are no formulas. These are questions that require you to challenge groupthink, conventional wisdom, and your own biases. Think of them as circuit breakers in your strategic questioning. If the tradeoffs are too extreme, or the downsides too severe, you may need to start over.


Alternatives. What are your alternatives? Is there another way? Ask about options that can achieve the same outcome. Keeping your strategic objective constant, ask whether there are different tactics that can lower the cost or raise the prospects for of success. Ask how tradeoffs and risks can be minimized by applying different approaches and timelines.


Define Success. How will you know when you get there? What will success look like? How will you measure it? Over what period of time? As any good military commander relentlessly asks about the “end state,” what “mission accomplished” really looks like, you should ask what success means to you, to your team and what it will take to get there. Is the goal in your best interests? Who will it help? How? Be sure answers are clear, commonly understood, and widely shared. These questions are the cornerstone of strategic thinking. They clarify destination and set expectations. They prompt answers that help navigate, set sights, and articulate a vision.


Listen. If you ask and don’t listen, you’re wasting everyone’s time. Invite questions from a wide range of perspectives. Then, listen closely, actively. Listen for unexpected obstacles or unexplored risk. Listen for scenarios that call for additional consideration. Listen for gratuitous compliments that suggest pandering, or qualified agreement that may conceal deeper problems or doubts. Listen for indications that people don’t understand the purpose, the mission, or the goal. Listen for opportunities you hadn’t thought of. Intent listening will help you determine whether you’re on track or whether the message needs to be sharpened or whether the strategy itself is flawed and needs to be rethought.


Try. Engage a group about your big idea. Explain the reasoning behind it. Then ask everyone to challenge you, your logic, your goals, and your tactics. Ask them to list the downsides and the risks as well as the upsides and the advantages. Answer questions with more questions to dig deeper. Limit your comments and questions to 30 percent of the meeting, so others are speaking (and you are listening) 70 percent of the time. What do you hear?


Human resource executives are often the most successful people. A hidden skill linking many of them is the ability to ask hard questions and make good hiring decisions based on strategy. They know how to ask the right questions that help envision the future, assess risk and reward, and anticipate trends.

The Authors: 

Frank Sesno is director of the School of Media and Public Affairs (SMPA) at The George Washington University and the author of Ask More: The Power of Questions to Open Doors, Uncover Solutions, and Spark Change. He is an Emmy-award winning journalist and creator of PlanetForward.org, a user-driven web and television project that highlights innovations in sustainability. He hosts and facilitates the Planet Forward Salon Series focusing on topics such as energy policy, green jobs, and food production. He has moderated events for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Bayer CropScience, Land O’Lakes Foundation, and National Geographic, among others. He can be reached at sesno@gwu.edu.