How to use open questions effectively with your staff

This is part four of the eBook, Building a High Performing Team on Purpose.

I’m going to one day invent a magic dye, as well as high tech glasses, that show you how the energy can be sapped from people in your business so easily by people in management positions. I will colour energy and inspiration in green, with apathy orange, whilst flat demotivation will be red. You can buy this dye and glasses for a million dollars a pop. Until this amazing product is released, you can read this section for free and it may also be useful, albeit less of a psychedelic experience.

Poor leadership and management is one of the biggest killers of success in any company.  You can have everything else working for you, but bad leadership will destroy that success like someone vomiting on your chocolate souffle.  In a small to medium business where there exists a smaller number of managers, one bad one can destroy an entire company.  

People join organisations, they leave managers.

Remember this old phrase?  It became popular a couple of decades ago and is unfortunately still as true as ever.  The reason is because leadership expectations and the impact of leaders on people appears to be growing faster than the rate of improvement in leadership capability.  

Do you know what could be going on in your business?

Business leaders can unknowingly create the wrong type of tension 

Consider an example of advertising in the Yellow Pages or buying a Commodore 64 computer for your processing – it simply won’t work in 2020 that same way it worked in 1980.  If you are using leadership approaches and standards that were popular 40 years ago, you will be left behind and people will leave your company behind.

The change in generations means that people used to put up with poor leadership and would simply just not work as hard.  This is the thing people don’t get – it’s not that baby boomers were that different as humans, it’s that they didn’t expect to receive praise and assumed that if they didn’t hear anything bad they were doing a good enough job.  The fact they got paid was their reward.  

Even so, I still hear this perspective being strongly held by a number of leaders, who are not baby boomers – from generation X and millennials funnily enough.  Millennials have been taught to speak up if they think something is not right and if they are not happy with something, to change it.  Is it any wonder that they will raise concerns when they don’t feel valued and then leave if nothing is done about it?  Is the preference for employees to simply shut up about it, stay with the company and simply just work the absolute minimum instead?

It’s possible that your actions are unknowingly creating the wrong type of tension in your business.  The wrong type of tension is the type that distracts, divides and makes people apprehensive.  

The leader who is not self-aware will be doing this many times a week.  The opportunity to show you don’t care, to show you blame the staff, to show you don’t think much of someone, to be fake around them – happens all the time.  I know you probably don’t think of yourself this way, but you are the big boss, which means everything you do is magnified.

Are your eyes closed to a bad leader in your business?

Let me ask you if this sounds familiar – you hired someone into a manager position.  They were either a good performer internally or hired externally.  They came with strong technical knowledge and are good at producing great work.  They are still a great technical performer and are producing excellent work…

Unfortunately, “Their team keeps letting them down.  It’s so hard to find good staff and especially with the way these millennials think these days, it’s difficult to get people to take five minutes away from their phones, let along go above and beyond.  The manager is working long hours making sure everything gets done.  I’m so thankful to have them around and whilst they are not the perfect leader, you can 100% rely on them…”

This is the classic individual contributor description who is still doing the same things they did before they were hired into a leadership position.  

We have a group of guys who go on a monthly steak night dinner when we can make it.  The other night was the first in a long time due to lockdown.  After a few beers and a red wine at a local pub, I was having a debate with a friend of mine about Michael Jordan, where I claimed that he was a terrible leader.  The response I received was the argument “you can’t argue against six championships!  His methods worked.”  

Now at this point I was ready to proclaim across the pub “correlation is not the same as causation!”  but I am also an advocate of adapting communication styles to the context.  So instead I referred to the fact that he was the best individual player of all time by far and that they had a great team led by a great coach.  He saw himself as a leader and when interviewed, still views himself as a leader.  

But no, he was just the best player and everyone else was scared of him so they did what he wanted.  They knew that if they crossed him they would end up with a black eye, like teammate Steve Kerr did when he stood up to MJ. Being a high performer at a particular role doesn’t imply they’ll be a great leader for that function.

Good workers don’t always make good leaders 

Another story that has emerged with MJ was a time when Australian Luc Longley had an outstanding first half, scoring 19 points. Jordan gave him praise for the very first time at the halftime break.  In the second half, because Longley had already 3 fouls (you have to leave the game after 6), he didn’t play much and hardly scored. Jordan said to him after the game that he would never, ever praise him again after that. 

I could go on. The point here is that not many people are writing that Jordan was a terrible leader, because they just look at his results. This is exactly what happens when a bad leader in a business is seemingly achieving good results for the company. Sometimes, they are riding the coattails of their predecessor.  Sometimes, the market is going well or others have dropped out. Sometimes, their team is banding together through adversity and just surviving despite their leader. 

The thing to consider is this:

The results of a team are either good or bad depending on what you are comparing them to.  If by your comparison point, of say 7, the results of 8 are good and you conclude that it is due to good leadership, then if your comparison point were different, of say 9, and the results were actually bad, being 8, was the leadership now bad too (even though it was exactly the same)?

Good leadership is essential to building a high performing team on purpose.  Ironically, that Chicago Bulls team did have great leadership from others in the team, as well as their coach.  Their success was not about what the world thinks, or who wins a debate out of me and my steak night buddy.  It’s about the one thing they didn’t do…

Stop promoting Michael Jordan to a role on the bench

It is baffling to still see business owners promoting people into leadership experience mostly based on their individual performance, technical knowledge and tenure.  It is most astounding that they are placed into these roles with little to no training and development in how to lead others. 

But I see this all the time. Many business owners will promote the person who has the best technical knowledge and individual output from the team into a leadership position.  This is because business owners who are flat out tend to value the person who is responsible, who knows a lot and who doesn’t need much supervision.  They want to reward them and that person aspires to be a “manager”.  So they promote them to lead the team.  The business owner feels good because they can go work on growing the business, knowing the team is being taken care of.  But is that really happening or do you just want it to be the case?

People who are strong individual contributors do not always make the best leaders.  But they are disproportionately promoted to a leadership role, where they often just perform their old role and respond to technical questions the team has.  Because they are not developing or inspiring the team, they are not getting better and their workload becomes much greater.  What is even worse is that they now have less time to do what they do best – which is be an individual contributor.  

Before reading the key takeaways and recommendations, click here to take my simple Leadership Assessment quiz for your managers and yourself.


This is what I mean by taking Michael Jordan off the court and now asking him to coach the team from the bench.  He won’t be able to take it and he will put back on the uniform and score baskets in a way only he knows how.  Then he will tell them “That’s how you do it!  Now it’s your turn!”  

First, define what it is to be a people leader in your organisation.  Make sure you are properly informed on what this should look like.  This should be part of your organisational design approach discussed in Chapter 3.  Consider the context that you are in, for instance, Network Performance may be a specific area that will drive value for your business.  This is the competency that is engaging effectively across suppliers, staff and customers to deliver a superior customer experience.   

Second, when promoting people into leadership positions, use a range of assessments to determine their suitability, that are based on your definition of leadership.  This should include psychometric assessments, observations and behavioural interviews.  If people do not have the natural energy towards helping others succeed then they will be limited as leaders.

Third, provide the right development, which should not just be training workshops. Leadership development should include coaching and feedback for the leader to practice new skills and uncover their blind spots.  Learning and development will be covered in Chapter 6 for further detail.

Finally, what is perhaps the most important thing is that you and other senior leaders need to embody the definition of leadership that you have.  This is not a task that you delegate to middle managers.  It doesn’t mean you need to be perfect (good leaders are comfortable admitting their weaknesses), but you need to be overtly striving to be that leader.  If this part is missed, then the rest will not work.  

Key take-aways:

  • The value in investing in leaders is not new and the competencies needed to invest in are also not new, but there has never been a more important time to invest in leadership
  • It’s that the digital context heightens the need to invest in leaders and particular competencies move up the ranks in importance.  
  • On top of this, the changing demographics of having more millennials, more generations and the opportunity for people to leave employment altogether for the gig economy makes the need to invest more in leadership.  
  • Recognise that not all of your employees will make good leaders and avoid the temptation to simply promote the person who is technically strong with good tenure.


  • Ensure you are defining your leadership roles accurately, including the competencies required for success, given your context, strategy and organisational design
  • Only promote or hire people into those roles who display the potential to be successful in those competencies (not just based on technical knowledge and tenure)
  • Invest in the development of those people to provide them skills to be strong leaders
  • Invest in your own leadership so that you can support their development and role model the behaviours you are looking for in them

To read Chapter 3 of Building a High Performing Team –  Your Organisational and Job Design, click here.

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