Always ask questions: The path to business failure is the path of “I know”

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Conor Neill teaches Persuasive Communication at IESE Business School in Barcelona and is an entrepreneur who has founded four companies. He was previously a manager in the Human Performance consulting practice of Accenture. He frequently blogs at conorneill.com and tweets as @cuchullainn. Here he shares with us the golden business lesson learned from the Anglo Irish Bank debacle… always ask questions.

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Ireland may not be the most bankrupt country in the world right now, but we are pretty damn close. We do fully own the indignity of allowing the world’s single worst bank to grow up on our land. Today, Irish police arrested the CEO of Anglo Irish Bank, Sean Fitzpatrick. He lent himself €84 million of his bank’s money.

width="213"Anglo Irish Bank led the way over the last 15 years in shoveling billions of euros to a small group of Irish property developers who inflated the values of Irish property to ridiculous levels. In its 15 years of existence, Anglo Irish Bank lost 50 cents on every euro lent. This is a spectacular level of lending failure. If I just lent money to random drunk people in a bar I would have a hard time losing this much money.

Never stop asking “why?” and “how?”

I took an interest in the lives of the bankers behind Anglo Irish Bank. What was going on inside Anglo in this race to lend more and more while asking less and less of the client? In the case of most, I don’t believe that corrupt managers are the answer. The sad answer is arrogance. They stopped asking questions. They “knew”.

How long does it take a chess player to achieve the level of Grandmaster? About 10-15 years at the very shortest. What is the attitude of a Grandmaster? Learning every day. Asking “why?” How long does it take an athlete to develop for the Olympics? 15-20 years of disciplined eating, daily training, rigorous recovery routines. What is the attitude of an Olympic Athlete? Learning everyday and asking “how?”

What was the attitude of the leadership team of Anglo Irish Bank? Learning every day? No. They “knew”. Who did they listen to? To those who agreed with them.

“Leaders find the right questions”

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John D. Rockerfeller would sit for hours in a meeting and not say anything. Many times he would appear to be asleep. When he did finally speak, it was always a question. It was a question that would break the gridlock of the discussion and bring out new viewpoints on a challenge.

Michael Dell doesn’t speak much in meetings, but when he does it is almost always a question. As a business school professor I teach by asking questions. I want conflicting views to come out. I want to hear different opinions. Verne Harnish says “We are good at finding answers to questions, leaders find the right questions”.

Creating an arrogant monster

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There is a systematic essential in the nature of corporate business that serves to create this arrogant monster. Business regularly promotes the best individual performer to be team leader. The top salesman becomes sales manager. The top programmer becomes team lead. The top engineer becomes operations manager. The previous strength of the individual becomes their greatest weakness as a leader. They know they were the best, so they have the best answers. When they feel a little threatened in the new role, they stop asking questions. They “know”.

Managers deal in improving the status quo. Management is about doing the same things a little better. Entrepreneurial leaders deal in uncertainty. Leadership is about giving others the confidence to move forward, helping them find their own answers. Nobody knows as much as Everybody.

Good manager versus good leader

A friend of mine, Jacques, is the father of a tennis player. If she loses, he asks “When did you know you were going to lose? Why did you not stop right then?” When a team is winning, the captain can be a manager. When the team is losing and doubt is in the minds of the players, the captain must be a leader. He must take control of his emotions. His self-doubt in the moment of losing can shut down his questions. This is the key moment. This is when the fear wins. We so want to be right, to “know” that we don’t want to hear other views. We stop asking questions.

What are your best questions?

Here are some of the best questions that I have found in the various roles I play in life:

The best leadership question

“What is the next right thing to do?”

The best teaching question

“What do you think? What other options do you see?”

The best coaching question

“You have achieved what you set out to accomplish. Imagine yourself there. What does it feel like?”

The best friendship question

“How are you?”

The best parenting question

“What was the best moment of your day?”

The best sales question

“(I understand that price is important.) What other criteria are important in making this decision?” (The implicit question: “What are you comparing this to?”)

So the next time you feel you “know”, beware. Ask a question. Find someone that disagrees. Why? What are they seeing? What question will you ask? Begin to cultivate a healthy fear of “knowing” you are right.

Sean Fitzpatrick might not be in a jail cell today if he had asked a few more questions. Anglo Irish Bank might not have lost over €30 billion if they had asked a few more questions. The Irish might not have a hole of €67 billion in our accounts if more difficult questions had been asked of Anglo Irish Bank, Bank of Ireland and Allied Irish Banks.

What are your best questions? Let us know in the comments box below…

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