In his 30-plus years as a leading management consultant, James Haybyrne has seen one attribute that has helped executives build successful organisations: It is the ability to ask the right questions.
This underpins informed decision- making and effective strategic planning but, too often, is an undervalued skill among senior managers, presumed - by themselves and others - to have all the answers.
Understandably, Haybyrne does not set out definitive views on how to run a business in his book Dream. Think. Become. Rather, the chairman and chief executive of Strategic Thinking Group aims to stimulate ideas and direct minds to the range of issues all top executives should be asking about.
He does this with a series of essays built around the theme of a seven-step journey designed to craft, execute and sustain a successful long-term strategy. The essays, in some cases encapsulating views formed over many years, address topics such as creating a sense of urgency, empowering people, and making good performance a habit.
These prompt readers to consider more critically what should be happening in their own business - and why - without labouring under the illusion that all answers must reside within themselves.
"You just have to go back to the Wall Street meltdown to see the number of people not asking the right questions or challenging assumptions," says Haybyrne, who has worked with leaders and senior executive teams in more than 30 countries. "There should always be conflicting opinions about the direction a business should take. You must allow healthy debate and not have a model of leadership and corporate culture with just one `king'. That shows tremendous arrogance, doesn't get the best out of people, and leaves a lot of untapped equity and ideas that never come out."
He notes, though, that many organisations still struggle with the concept of encouraging debate and questioning current practice. The usual mindset, even in smaller entrepreneurial organisations, is to assume the boss automatically knows best.
Therefore, the biggest challenge for a leader, at both personal and professional levels, is often to overturn conventional thinking and exemplify new modes of behaviour, Haybyrne says.
"You consciously have to change and avoid being drawn back to your comfort zone," he adds. "Of course, at some point you have to stop asking questions and act. But [employees] will have the will to execute if they feel they have been involved in the decisions and had a chance to contribute to the process."
In the book, Haybyrne emphasises that tough, pointed questioning is a matter of ethics as much as management. The senior team sets the tone for the whole organisation, which must entail the right measure of humility and discipline.
If something is financially lucrative, but doesn't look quite right, someone should be asking why. As recent examples show, too many top executives still seem to think that not asking and not knowing is a justifiable excuse for all kinds of failings.
"Sometimes, you need to break up the thinking process and do things differently," Haybyrne says. "Growing people inside the organisation can be good, but they are also [learning] a certain culture, and what they are doing may be totally inappropriate for the future."
He cautions, in particular, against "short-termism", pointing out that successful strategic thinking combines bottom-line results with long-term sustainability. "You must have people who can adapt and build a way of thinking that is not dependent on one or two people," he says.
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