To be ignorant and ask questions

My greatest strength as a consultant is to be ignorant and ask a few questions.” (Peter Drucker)

I’m pretty sure my former boss hated the quote above. That’s why the last thing he told me during an annual performance review was, “Sunil, try to go easy on your questions; you ask a lot of them!” Those words stung. But thank god it was a Friday! I had the whole weekend to chew on the remark and do something about it. 

The following day, I packed my bags and went to the library. I checked in and settled myself next to the “business” section hoping to find a resource on devising a personal performance management plan. And as I glossed over the rows, I noticed this book, “Good Leaders Ask Great Questions” by John Maxwell. 

And as much as I despise clichés, I must say that the book changed my life. I tore through the entire book in the next 7 hours, taking notes, stopping, reflecting, and jotting down my thoughts in my notebook. By the time I was through, I saw leadership in a different light while self-validating my desire to be the inquisitive self. 

I learned the actual value of asking questions and that:  

  1. Questions unlock and open doors that otherwise remain closed.
  2. Questions are the most effective means of connecting people
  3. Questions connect people.
  4. Questions allow us to build better ideas.
  5. Questions give us a different perspective.

The book also helped me ask myself a few questions, including:  

  1. What can I do to invest in myself? 
  2. What can I do to genuinely help others in my team be better team members and leaders?
  3. What can I do to stay grounded as a leader?

Reflecting on these questions helped me discover a few books and resources on the art and practice of coaching. Of course, I wasn’t entirely new to coaching. Having a sports background and having coached teams and individuals inside and outside the organization, I knew what it meant to be a fantastic coach. I was getting the results after all. Or so I thought. 

After going through the books and resources that I had checked out, I realized I had gotten it all wrong. The coaching I practised was more of mentoring with a chock full of questions than coaching in its purest form. Something was missing, and I wanted to understand what it was. My curiosity was piqued, and I was on a self-commissioned mission to know everything there is to it about coaching.

So, I mapped out a plan, starting with finding a reputed coach-training school and then listing down the top 50 classics on the art and practice of coaching. I already had about dozen of these in my library and went ahead and bought another half a dozen to satiate my need to know more.

And all that pre-reading helped me understand the Coach-training program’s content much profoundly. But there was a gap — I had a whole lot of theory and a lot less practice. So, I dove into peer coaching to soak it all up from my experienced peers and mentor coach. 

At the same time, I also initiated coaching within my organization. Most of these sessions were intentional. The clients (my team members, team leaders, managers, and a couple of peers stationed internationally) knew I was coaching them to explore and think of a solution. In other instances, I was deliberate with my responses; instead of offering solutions, I asked questions and helped others find their answers. It was a tad lengthy process, but I didn’t have to worry about people “buying into” my ideas. 

As I gradually went beyond my peer-coaches and colleagues, I realized that questioning and listening are two sides of the proverbial coin. All questions are driven by how intently are you listening. As a coach, the depth of your listening is directly related to the impact of your questions. And not all listening is created equal. 

I’ve had instances when I thought I was listening to what was being said, but only later during a session did I tap into what the client was trying to say, not through words but emotions, pauses, body language, and tone. Listening to the unsaid is a powerful skill that can transform lives. Mastering it, however, can take a lifetime. But the pursuit is worth the effort. 

My journey also made me observe how I challenged my own limiting beliefs, mainly around the “impostor syndrome.” I’ve always had this belief that I might be good, but I’m not that good. Not exactly a great narrative one should be telling themselves every single day. I knew I had to rewire my mind to think positively and appreciate my unique gifts than someone else’s.

So, instead of asking myself if I’m good enough, I asked myself the following three questions every day for 90 days using an app three times a day:   

  1. Did I do my best to be kind to myself?
  2. Did I do my best to appreciate my natural talents and strengths? 
  3. Did I do my best to enable myself to serve others better?

I quit using the app after the 67th day because I felt content, appreciative, and fulfilled with who I am as a person and what I do as a helping professional. But I was still amazed at the simplicity and power of asking questions in a self-coaching context, it isn’t any less powerful, and if done well, it can be just as transformative.

I think I’ve come a long way from being that inquisitive leader seeking a personal development plan to someone who helps other leaders develop their plans. And while I still am passionate about learning and growing as a coach and a leader, I can’t imagine what my life would have been if I didn’t know the power to ask questions. 

And sometimes I wonder — 

If my life would’ve been any different if my boss hadn’t shared his nasty feedback? 

What if I hadn’t ever bumped into that John Maxwell book? Would I have been a coach if I hadn’t sought resources and books on the art and practice of coaching? 

Would I have ever signed up for a coach-training program? 

Would I even dream about working with and impacting so many people’s lives? 

Training to become a coach and practising the art has given me a proactive perspective on creating a life that I’ve always wanted to live — a life where I could serve others be their best.  

And I sign off with a statement that the legendary business Dan Sullivan’s professor said more than 50 years ago, “Answers are a dime a dozen. What’s rare in this world is a great question. What’s yours?”

%d bloggers like this: