Inspiration to ask great questions from Coach K’s Sanyin Siang

Sanyin Siang, of Duke University’s Coach K Leadership and Ethics Center, says there are 6 types of questions great leaders ask:

“Effective leaders use questions to:
1. Establish credibility and convey who they are. Effective leaders are fearless about asking questions because a well-framed question can highlight the understanding of an issue, and communicate the questioner’s point of view. Think about great interviewers such as Barbara Walters, Larry King, or Oprah Winfrey, and how their questions convey both their areas of expertise, as well as their values. As Ellen Kullman, Chairman and CEO of Dupont, who also sees her role as the ‘chief people recruiter,’ had shared with me: You can tell more from a person by the questions that they ask than the answer that they give.

2. Drive to the heart of an issue. They ask questions that filter the critical information from the noise, and that help connect the dots. They take a step back and ask, Why is this the case? How does this affect us? What are we assuming? What do we need to know that we don’t yet know? What other questions do we need to be asking right now?

3. Get people to focus on the potential for positive change, rather than on a negative reality. This is especially needed today when uncertainty and bad news plague even the best of organizations. Madison Avenue legend Keith Reinhard, retired Chairman and CEO of DDB Worldwide, once recounted the story of what happened when DDB lost the American Airlines (AA) account. The news dealt a major blow to employee morale. So on that day, Keith asked, If you were to write the headline for the DDB and the AA relationship five years from now, what would that headline be? By asking a question that ignited his employees’ imagination, he also rekindled a sense of optimism. In the end, his team came up with ideas that enabled them to win back the AA account.

4. Encourage collaboration. Well-constructed questions can resolve the tension of seemingly opposing viewpoints, as well as get people excited about working together. While there is no template, an approach I use is to first steer the conversation away from the zero-sum mindset that opposing parties typically hold and find ways to connect the valid aspects from each. Then, try to unearth the motivations behind each viewpoint. The resulting information can lead to questions that focus them on an integrative (different from a compromising), and potential third and more effective option.

5. Foster a stronger sense of personal ownership and accountability. Questions, as opposed to declarations, create a different power dynamic between the questioner and the respondent. Posing a question can elevate the sense of power of the respondent without diminishing the power of the questioner. For example, Mellody Hobson, Chairman of the Boards of DreamWorks Animation SKG and Ariel Mutual Funds, and Director of Starbucks, told me the story of how she had used questions as a way of providing tough feedback. A few years ago, an employee was under-performing less and making mistakes. Mellody showed the data to the employee and asked: Based on this data, what would you think, or do, if you were in my shoes? Not only did the employee come to the same conclusion as she had, but by framing the feedback as a question, Mellody instilled in the employee a greater sense of accountability for how to improve the situation.

6. Develop leadership talent in others. Questions have the power to prompt reflection on the part of the respondent. In my role as an executive leadership coach, I find that being prescriptive often isn’t as useful as helping a person connect the dots, and realize that they already know the right answer. In wrestling with some tough situations, simply starting with questions such what makes this challenging and what would you like to see happen can begin to help the coachee probe more deeply . In the process, they gain a greater awareness of self and the issues. As they begin to recognize and grow more confident in their personal capabilities, they also begin to unleash their true leadership potential.”

Great advice — now it’s time to PRACTICE. It’s hard to sit back and ask powerful questions, but it’s worth the initial discomfort when we put our advice and prescriptions aside and really ask, really listen. That’s good coaching and good leadership.


  1. Rick Martinez · · Reply

    Carol: Thank you for your insightful article on the art and science of asking well-framed “essential questions.” Fortunately or unfortunately, school always came rather easy to me, and I always graduated quickly and early. So, not only did I find myself in college rather young, I was also socially shy and introverted: I was under-developed and immature.

    Yet, I was truly blessed to have an array of professors who were not only brilliant, but good, and cared for my downsides. While studying in England, a professor invited me to walk the grounds of the beautiful campus with him each morning at 6 am. He was an MD, Ph.D. and a bona fide genius…and most of all a “good man.” He would ask me questions…lots of questions…all sorts of questions…about anything, everything, even nothing.

    He never talked about himself, for he had nothing to prove—especially to me. He
    had no real need to be chatty, as he could have been with his knowledge. It wasn’t important to him to talk over my head to demonstrate his IQ. Instead, he was asking me questions and waiting for me to engage, and then listening with rapt attention. This was his way of getting me involved, of bringing me out of my shell, allowing me to “feel felt,” and extending the age-old technique of noblesse oblige.

    From an interpersonal perspective, everyone’s favorite subject is them, and the sweetest sound to their ears is the sound of their own name. People who want to make people happy should know this. We must realize we can influence others by choosing strategic times to speak and validate others by extending them the courtesy of listening via noblese oblige.

    Lastly, I read a book published in 1969 all about “essential questions” titled Teaching as a Subversive Activity. It’s worth reading in 2015—especially in 2015.


    1. Rick: I totally agree with you about Teaching as a Subversive Activity — it’s one of the best books on my shelf bout teaching. And I love your story about that professor — you were brave and smart to walk with him that early in the morning. His listening must have been transformative! I think one of the hardest things to do is stay silent, and ask powerful questions that really connect with what a person is sharing. So many of us talk together in monologues. It’s very sad, and adds up to a lonely conversation, essentially leaderless.

      How do you put the lessons you’ve learned about essential questions to work in your life and career?


  2. […] is a key resource for effective leaders, but how do we find the strength we need to connect big questions to big solutions and identify the steps we need to get to those solutions. Great leadership […]


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