Ask great reporters to name their most powerful tool, and you just might hear this:
Not just any question, but one that is simple, open-ended and all but requires the subject to abandon the relative safety of a “yes” or “no.” The great question does not just confirm what the reporter knows; it reveals something new. It explains something complex. It leaves all who read or hear its answer smarter.
So why, knowing the power of the question, do so many of us who become newsroom managers forget to include it in our toolbox? Instead of relying upon great questions to help us lead our staffs, we think something else is expected of us:
I did. No sooner had I accepted my first assistant editor’s title, the desk and the raise (yes, in the old days we got raises with promotions) and promptly became an “Answer Man.” Overnight I was capable of boldly producing opinions upon request — and equally good at delivering them to staffers who didn’t yet appreciate their value enough to ask.
And we wonder why no one participates in meetings.
I started thinking about this phenomenon again a few weeks ago while watching (here goes my cred, such as it was) the Food Network’s “Restaurant: Impossible,” which each week features a new attempt by celebrity chef Robert Irvine to save a failing restaurant in just 48 hours.
Halfway through this particular episode, the overbearing manager of the week’s floundering restaurant reflected upon what she had been doing wrong.
“I was decisive,” she said. “But I wasn’t effective.”
Bullseye. Many of us who are given the opportunity to manage other people fixate on our need to be decisive. Problem is, we forget about the ingredients that contribute to making good decisions — ingredients like information, experience and other people.
No matter how large your staff or responsibility, I’m guessing that in the weeks ahead, you will make hundreds of decisions on everything from strategy to story assignments to ethical dilemmas. What if you had to sign an agreement that required you, before making each decision, to ask at least one good question?
Sounds easy. In this fast-pace time of continuous change, it’s not.
So what if we just agree that during the next week, all of us managers will ask just three questions? Sort of a practice run for a more ambitious course to come.
Question One — Ask someone on your staff, “How are you doing?”
To manage your staff’s work, you need to check in with them periodically. What’s going well? What’s not going well? How are the kids? You can manage your staff by simply reviewing their work; that gives you one data set. But remember, the great reporter would go beyond the data and ask the subject open-ended questions. Why shouldn’t the editor who aspires to be great go beyond the data, too?
Question Two — Ask someone on your staff, “How am I doing?”
This one may elicit some throwaway responses if the staffer has any reason to doubt that you want to hear the truth. But once the sincerity of your question is established, you could learn something that has great impact on your management of that person — or of the whole staff. A reporter once told me that the higher I went in the organization, the less accessible I became for the people who reported to me. I was blindsided. But she was right, and I had the chance to do something about it — all because I asked the question.
Question Three — Ask someone who wants a decision from you: “What do you think we should do?”
Think about the messages this question sends. First, it announces that the person looking for a decision knows a lot (and maybe more than you) about the situation in question. Second, it says, “I want your opinion” and gives you the opportunity to show you value it. Third, it establishes that you do not intend to be the “Answer Person.” And finally, it gives you opportunity to really establish your credibility by saying, “I don’t know what we should do.”
Great managers are comfortable saying “I don’t know.” They know the staff is confident a decision will be made — once the manager has taken time to ask some good questions.