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Leadership in IT: Are you a teller or an asker?

Editor's note: What type of leadership in IT brings the best results? In this video, SearchCIO columnist Joseph Flahiff argues that effective leaders today ask questions of employees rather than just tell them what to do. When leaders ask questions, workers feel engaged and are much more likely to come up with creative solutions. Watch this video to become a better asker of questions.

There was time when leaders led by telling. "You, move that rock from over there to over there." "Lay down those railroad tracks over there." [That's] because leaders had all the information [about how to do the job] and the workers would just do. That substantially flips around in the information age.

Now, the people who are doing all the moving and lifting and laying have a ton of information. They actually know a lot about the organization. So much so that there is a balance of decision-making that needs to be happening. Leaders no longer need to lead by telling, they need to lead by asking.

What leadership in IT can do

So, as a leader you go, "Okay, how do I ask? How do I ask these things?" You need to become an expert at asking powerful questions. This is a technique that coaches use a lot. Coaches will ask you questions and pull out of you what you already know. You as a leader need to pull out of people the things they already know.

Leaders no longer need to lead by telling, they need to lead by asking.

So, you may be in a session with one of your reports and you've got [to figure out how to solve a] problem. In the past, people would have looked to the leader -- you -- to make the decision. Don't.

If you want your team to be creative and to move fast, you want engagement. And to get engagement, you need to have everyone involved. Even if you know the answer, ask questions. Ask questions like, "What's possible?" "What's the opportunity here?" "What's the challenge?" "What's stopping us from doing that?" "What would you do differently if you had to do that again?"

They are not yes/no questions. Yes/no questions are too easy and they are not open-ended questions. These are powerful questions that help focus the attention and help the people that you are leading to engage their brain more and become engaged in the conversation.

About the author:

Joseph Flahiff is an internationally recognized leadership and organizational agility expert at Whitewater Projects Inc. He has worked with Fortune 50 and Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, startups and publicly traded firms, where he has been recognized as an experienced, pragmatic and innovative adviser. He is the author of Being Agile in a Waterfall World: A practical guide for complex organizations. Learn more at

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What questions do you ask your employees to foster creative thinking?
In my consulting experience in Governance, Risk and Compliance (Business and IT), I have seen many IT Divisions (shops?) attempt to change their Leadership Style from Driver to Requester with little to extremely Poor results. In certain instances, the change in management style resulted in a total breakdown of service delivery.
From a Maturity and Culture perspective, it takes a certain type of Employee to raise to the opportunity given to them and the business by the Requestor style of management using the "What?". As most people want to see a financial reward for adding to the company's profits the motivation to think out of the box must be determined before changing management styles.
A good CIO may determine that this could work in his team, a GREAT CIO will know that Organisational Change will have to be applied across the Organisation to enable the mindset of Enabler.
Unfortunately, I have not met many GREAT CIOs in my career, basically two out of over three to four hundred.