Some time ago, I saw a presentation from a very well-known IT consulting group that advocated going out and asking internal stakeholders a question:

“What can we do to help?”

I couldn’t disagree strongly enough.

No, I haven’t suddenly given up wanting to help people.  I just think it’s a lousy question to ask someone when you’re in charge of something as complex and dynamic as IT (or HR, legal, finance, marketing, R&D… you get the point).

Why is it a lousy question?  Senior business leaders are smart, experienced – and opinionated.  But they are not usually experts in the subtleties of your field.  So their answers will often be:

  • Wrong – They simply don’t know what they don’t know.  They may be savvy about their own operation but relatively naive about your area of expertise.
  • Strong – These leaders are used to large helpings of influence. Once they have told you what they think, they will expect you to deliver.

After asking this question, you’re actually worse off than before.  Now there is an unstated expectation for you to do something that you may think isn’t actually in their best interest.  You’re in a box and it may not be a box you like very much. But many people are nervous about challenging the senior leader for fear that it will damage the relationship.

Here’s a better way: Position this sort of conversation as a chance to understand the leader’s unique perspective on the business.  Promise to use that perspective in your planning and in shaping any recommendations. Then ask them about the things they are truly expert in – their priorities, how they measure performance, and how things get done in their organization today.

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