I heard this as a true statement attributed to a Japanese executive in a corporate meeting. Apparently this person had remained quite silent for the whole meeting and that silence had started to worry other more junior people around the table. The meeting discussions had been about presenting several solutions to a significant problem. There was a lot of data to digest and lots of graphics to visualize. The presenting team had done a good job. They felt proud. But they did not get anything back from that senior executive!
Until that ‘I am now senior enough that I only ask questions’. That was a way to say, sorry, my role has not started yet. I am the one with the questions. The questions were the important bit, not the answers. And he had not heard any question yet. His seniority had given him the prerogative to bypass many answers and ‘go backwards’ to the questions. His silence was his contribution to a presentation with no questions. Annoying, but that is what he did. Perhaps he was a bit arrogant, but perhaps he had a point: somebody needs to ask the questions. Seniority? Not really, it has noting to do with it.
The art of questioning should be infected in the organizational life. Perhaps in the form of aerosol, or a product in the water supply, or, who knows, a vaccine. More seriously, the practice of questioning should be done by some people practicing and role-modelling it, and other people copying it. That’s the only way that behaviours scale up. Questioning is a behaviour.
Questioning could be irritating, particularly for those who have many ready-made answers. Questioning is also an art. One cultivates the arts by practicing them. Many hours of patient strokes may be required for that beautiful canvas. Equally, asking questions proficiently may require small but brave and repeated steps, particularly in front of people who don’t expect to be questioned.
The most important management question is ‘what is the question?’ It is also one of the difficult ones. It could be enlightening to hear that ‘what is the question we need to answer?’, or disruptive, or even infuriating. It is however very powerful.
Each organization, and each leadership team, should know the 3, or 5, or perhaps more (but not much) questions that are crucial for them. And they should practice them.
Questioning is a very healthy practice and, may I suggest, not the exclusive privilege of senior Japanese executives. It has nothing to do with seniority either.