What if I told you that you could double your team's output without adding a single person to your staff?
According to studies, less than 50% of knowledge workers are engaged in their work. This includes success managers, professional services, support, sales execs, engineers, and almost every other SaaS company employee.
These are our teams.
Because engagement is suffering, so is productivity.
And if the lack of productivity doesn’t kill our businesses, the apathy and turnover resulting from low engagement will.
When a team member walks out the door, they take product knowledge, industry expertise, and customer relationships with them, all of which are assets to the business.
As leaders, we must protect, cultivate, and multiply these assets.
Throughout my career, I’ve seen great people leave great companies because of poor leadership.
I’ve also seen great people stay at mediocre companies longer than they should because they love the leader they work for.
For a SaaS business to thrive, we must focus on developing great leaders who drive high employee engagement.
The notion of management is changing across every industry, especially those made of mostly knowledge workers.
During the Industrial Revolution and much of the 20th century, management was mostly command and control. Information and directives flowed from the top down to frontline workers content to punch a clock, fulfill their duties, and settle for the safety of mundane, repetitive jobs.
But in modern management and the SaaS industry specifically, the work has never been a manufacturing process. It's not an assembly line operation.
And as AI grows in importance and capability, our work will continue to be less about technical and tactical tasks And more about people, relationships, and outcomes.
Given this reality, it stands to reason that leaders in our industry must prioritize helping other people to succeed.
The tech industry needs more true people leaders.
What exactly is a leader?
Here are a few characteristics I think of:
- They make it safe for people to innovate
- Instead of directing, they gather input through inclusive debate
- Instead of being “the decider,” they push people to make their own decisions and own them
- Instead of giving orders, they give people the latitude to be wrong
- Instead of telling people what to do, they listen and seek to understand
The real question is, how do we, as customer success practitioners, become better leaders, and live up to these standards?
There is one tool that great leaders employ that is superior to all others - the ability to ask great questions.
After much study and practice – with some successes and many failures – I’m convinced that asking great questions is the best way to unlock the potential of the people and opportunities all around us.
In his book, Humble Inquiry, Edgar Schein explains that asking questions builds trusting relationships, leading to better communication and collaboration among individuals and teams.
Inquiry lifts the recipient. It empowers them and implies that they possess intrinsic value and useful insights.
Questions convey interest in the other person's point of view, and a willingness to listen.
Schein describes the act of asking questions as a sign of “here and now” humility. It allows the other person to maintain ownership over problems they must solve.
Inquiry is the central idea behind coaching. It helps draw out ideas and plans in other people that already exist in their minds.
So then, if questions are so important, what should we be asking that we're not?
In his book, The Coaching Habit, Michael Stanier outlines seven open-ended, impartial coaching questions for leaders to use with their teams.
- The kickstarter question
“What’s on your mind?”
Allows you to access the most pressing issues in the minds of others.
- The deeper insight question
“And what else?”
Stanier emphasizes staying curious just a little bit longer. Leaves air in the room and lets the recipient elaborate just a bit more. Allows them to get everything gout on the table.
- The focus question
“What is the real challenge here for you?”
This causes the recipient to verbalize the root issue for them.
- The desire question
“What do you want to happen?”
Clarifies underlying desires and preferences of the person bringing an issue to the table.
- The lazy question
“How can I help?”
Allows the recipient to maintain possession of the solution. It forces them to put into words what they need from you to support them best.
- The strategy question
“If you are saying ‘yes’ to this, what are you saying ‘no’ to?”
The strategy question clarifies tradeoffs. Strategy is nothing by making choices about where to focus time and energy. This question causes the recipient to consider the implications of the initiatives they choose to undertake.
- The learning question
“What was most useful for you here?”
A diagnostic question that helps refine communications and further build relationships.
“It takes discipline and active effort to access your ignorance.”
-- Ed Schein, Humble Inquiry
If we’re humble enough to try it, we may begin to realize some unexpected benefits:
- People will be excited to solve the problems they brought to you
- They will retain ownership of the issue
- You will learn more about the problem because you listened
- Your relationships will improve
- You'll find yourself with more time to spend on high-value efforts
Asking questions versus giving answers doesn't come naturally to us. Especially us with hard-charging, type-A personalities.
But I'm convinced that the ability to communicate with questions is a superpower. For everyone from support reps to engineers to sales and CS to the CEO.
So, my challenge to you is simply this: this week, ask more questions. Try it in your one-on-one, team meetings, customer calls, and even with your kids.
Access your ignorance, and let your spirit of genuine curiosity run free. Exercise humble inquiry, and watch your team’s engagement and productivity skyrocket.
If you want to study this topic further, there are several books that cover the topic extensively.
- Good leaders ask great questions – John Maxwell
- Radical Candor – Kim Scott
- Think Again – Adam Grant
- Multipliers – Liz Wiseman
- The Coaching Habit – Michael Bungay Stanier
- Humble Inquiry – Ed Shein
- 30 Day Leadership Playbook – my friend, Nils Vinje