All Articles Leadership Management Fewer answers, more questions: Developing your talent pool at all levels

Fewer answers, more questions: Developing your talent pool at all levels

We can't develop the next generation if we refuse to let go of telling them what to do and how to do it.

5 min read


Fewer answers, more questions: Developing your talent pool at all levels


A recent Harvard Business Review article in its Spotlight Series, “Educating the Next Generation of Leaders,” highlights the critical issue of people development at a time when organizations are increasingly struggling to find great talent.

Companies most often invest in developing leaders identified as “high potentials” through traditional classroom learning experiences while frequently overlooking the value of investing early in their pool of early managers and up-and-coming leaders.

An earlier investment in talent allows an organization to build habits and practices from day one  — affecting the long-term capacity and potential of the organization and its people while simultaneously creating a culture where growth is the norm and where people want to stay!

A chief factor in the long-term success of leaders is their ability to inspire and develop the people they are leading. When an early manager learns how to do this well in the initial stage of their career path, the organization has developed someone who has true potential for the long haul.   

What’s so hard about learning to develop people? Everything! 

It requires skill, courage, time, planning, candid feedback and a willingness to lean into important conversations. Sound easy? I didn’t think so. That’s why so often cultures revert to the old-style approach of “advising and telling,” hoping this is an effective way to develop others even when we know it’s not!

It’s tempting and often oh-so-satisfying as a leader to dish out all the answers. It’s quick, it ensures the solution is what the leader has in mind and it means the outcome will likely be dependably successful. What’s more, in most situations the rationale for “tell and fix” is well-intended – wanting to be helpful, wanting to help your people avoid mistakes you have made, wanting the outcomes to just as you would like them and at times wanting to get it done ASAP. 

Yet, when a leader provides answers and solutions, followers become “direction takers” and miss out on learning how to develop their own critical thinking skills, creating their own solutions, experiencing the successes and missteps and gaining confidence in their ability to continue to advance on their career path.

The old style of “telling and solving” doesn’t hit the spot when you want or need to build the next generation of leaders in your organization. Establishing a new approach to leading can be daunting⁠—here are four small steps that can help build a new habit and lead to more asking and developing:

1. How much telling are you doing? Monitor your tendency to lead in “tell mode.” Do an audit for the next seven days. Have a notepad close at hand and, at the end of each day, tally the number of tells. Give consideration to the opportunities for development that you might have missed.

2. How clear are you communicating outcomes? Oftentimes, leaders worry that goals won’t be hit if they refrain from directing and telling. This mindset is what leads us to turn on our “tell mode.”

If you are worried about failing on team goals, pay more attention to your outcome conversations. Are your outcomes clear and measurable? There’s one easy way to find out ⁠— ask your people if they are crystal clear about expectations around outcomes.

3. How well do you listen? Often, it’s hard to ask questions when you don’t listen carefully to what the issues and challenges are for a team member. Pay attention to how carefully you listen ⁠— slow down, take a deep breath and see what you might learn!

4. Make your asks matter. Keep your questions open, short, curious⁠. Consider three or four questions that predictably open the door to a more important conversation. Here are a few starters worth testing in your setting:

  • How can I be of help to you?
  • How are you thinking about this issue?
  • What is going to be most difficult here for you?
  • What’s most important for us to talk through?

Developing talent is one of the most important jobs of great managers and leaders and it all starts with how you show up, communicate and believe about your people. If you are like most of us humans, answers come much easier than asking questions.

Make a commitment. Test these four small steps for 30 days and pay attention to the impact it can have when you ask more and tell less!


Pamela McLean, PhD, is CEO and co-founder of Hudson Institute of Coaching, a coaching firm providing a full suite of coaching services to organizations and leaders. Master coach and clinical psychologist, McLean’s latest book is “Self as Coach, Self as Leader.” Her previous books include “The Completely Revised Handbook of Coaching” and “LifeForward.”

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