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A Powerful Secret to Career Success

After many years, I finally had an opportunity to read Carly Fiorina’s (former Chairman & CEO of Hewlett-Packard) book, Tough Choices. One of the things that really resonated with me was her approach to each new role, initiative, or challenge that she encountered. Before rolling up her sleeves and diving in, she took the time to ask lots of questions. She made an effort to understand as much as she could from as many people as possible. By asking questions, she realized that she earned people’s respect, as they appreciated her interest and enjoyed the opportunity to talk about themselves. She also learned a lot very quickly.

Asking questions is an incredibly powerful, and highly underutilized, career strategy. Think back to the last time you sat in a meeting, listening while others discussed something you didn’t fully understand. Did you jump in with a question, or did you sit back, observe, and hope it would become clearer to you as the discussion progressed? If you’re like most people, you opted not to ask a question. Perhaps you worried that others would judge you for not knowing what everyone else seemed to know. Or, you were concerned about taking the discussion off-track.

Here’s another common scenario. Reflect back on the last time your manager asked you to take on a new project, or commit to a new goal, but you weren’t entirely clear on his/her expectations. Did you ask follow up questions, or did you assume you would figure it out as you went along? Many people are afraid that by asking too many questions, their managers will think they’re incompetent. The opposite is actually true. Asking questions reinforces your commitment to getting the job done right.

Each time you fail to ask a question, you miss a very important opportunity. Here are just some of the benefits of asking questions:

1. Acquire valuable information. This is the most obvious benefit of asking questions. If something isn’t clear, or you want a deeper understanding, asking questions will expand your knowledge and increase your understanding. The better you understand something, the more confidently you can speak about it, and the more effectively you can do your job.

2. Be more productive. Without asking questions, you are bound to make inaccurate assumptions that result in wasted time and energy. Rather than speculate about the right approach to take, only to have to repeat the task when it’s not done correctly, ask clarifying questions. The more clearly you understand the objectives and expectations, the more effectively and efficiently you will perform your job.

3. Increase your visibility. Many executives spend much of their time in meetings. It certainly feels unproductive at times, but it’s a great way to increase your visibility. By asking questions, people begin to notice you. You differentiate yourself as someone who is engaged in the discussion, interested in making a contribution, and capable of formulating thoughtful questions. People remember the people who add value.

4. Demonstrate your leadership potential. It’s human nature to fear being judged or looking foolish. Let’s face it, there is certainly an element of vulnerability when you ask a question. It also brings great opportunity, however. When you ask a question, you take a leadership role. As conventional wisdom tells us, if you have a question, others likely have the same question. By asking your question, you’ve put yourself out there and benefited others at the same time. Everyone else who was afraid to ask that same question will appreciate that you stepped forward.

5. Build relationships. If there is something you don’t understand, or would like to learn more about, treat a subject matter expert to coffee and pick his/her brain. This is a great way to meet people in different functional groups and build valuable relationships. People love to talk about themselves and what they do! They’ll appreciate the opportunity and you’ll get some really useful information.

If asking questions is not your natural style, it can feel uncomfortable to put yourself out there. Find an opportunity to take a small step outside your comfort zone. If you’re not ready to raise your hand at your company’s next town hall meeting, try asking a question in smaller group meetings. Each time you do this, you will feel more comfortable. And you’ll become more confident, particularly as you begin to reap the benefits of this very powerful practice.

How do you feel about asking questions? Do you find it empowering, or does it make you feel vulnerable?

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