One More Question

Posted 07.25.2011

Sometimes the simplest things make the biggest difference. I see this all the time in coaching leaders. In fact, it's usually the simplest things that make the biggest difference.  Here's an example from my executive coaching files.

One of my clients was a senior executive I'll call Sam. He was brilliant in his technical domain, not so much in the people domain. I actually worked with Sam on a couple of occasions. The first time our focus was helping him establish better connections and engagement with his team. Based on the feedback we got over a number of months, he improved a lot on that front.

The second time I worked with Sam was after he had been promoted to senior vice president.  The issue now was how to work more collaboratively and effectively with his executive level peers.  Sam and I knew each other pretty well at this point so I thought we'd nail things pretty easily and quickly.  Boy, was I wrong.  Sam wasn't that enthused about engaging with his peers.

After about six weeks of getting nowhere, I showed up at his office for an appointment and was getting nothing from him in the conversation.  Lots of one and two word responses to my questions, lots of dead air, no questions back to me.  After about 15 minutes, I started putting my things away and suggested we try again in a couple of weeks.  Sam's response was a true to form, "OK."  As I walked toward the door, I asked him  if I could share an observation.  Sam said, "Yes."  I replied that, "My observation is that you're the most difficult person to have a  conversation with that I've ever met."  Sam looked stunned and puzzled and asked why.  My response was that in most conversations I had been in in my life, one person would say something and the other person would reply with some information or perhaps ask a question of the first person.  I told him that he didn't do much of either one of those and that made it difficult to have a conversation with him.

We were scheduled for a phone call a couple of weeks later and I wasn't expecting much from that either. Boy, was I wrong again.

When Sam called in, there was a tone of excitement in his voice that I had never heard before.  "I've been doing what you told me to do and I can't believe how well it works!"  I didn't remember telling him to do anything.  All I'd done was make an observation so I asked him what he had been doing.  "I've been asking one more question, he said, and I can't believe how much I'm learning."  When I asked him to explain, he told me that when he thought a conversation had reached a logical conclusion, he'd ask one more question of the other person and that's when the real conversation started.

Of course, it wasn't all sunshine and roses from there.  Sam still had a lot of work to do to connect with his peers, but that was the breakthrough.  Something simple.  It was easy to do and usually made a difference.  It was a momentum builder and it helped make him a better executive leader.

What's your version of "one more question"?