The Question of the Grandmother

“Sooner or later, like it or not, you’ll be faced with challenging questions – so why not get in the habit of asking them sooner?”
-Warren Berger

questionsAs a coach leader, I never tire of hearing those four little words, “That’s a good question.” Coaches are often asked, “How do you know what questions to ask?” That too is a good question. How can we develop and improve our ability to question? How can we rekindle that questioning spark that we had at age four?

Many of us may have stopped asking questions because we were taught that it isn’t polite. Or perhaps we don’t ask because questioning just became too inefficient. Our work, our world, demands quick answers, rather than probing questions. Another reason may be that we ourselves don’t know the answers. What would be the impact on our organizations if our leaders were uncertain of all the answers?

Being comfortable with not knowing the answer is the first step toward being able to question. Being a coach has enabled me to ask what I refer to as the “naive question.” The 2013 TED Prize winner, Sugata Mitra, refers to the naive question as ‘the question of the grandmother’: “How did you do that?” “How did you know that would work?” “What is the most important thing for me to know?” “How will you explain that for one who doesn’t understand?”

Paul Bennett, Director of IDEO writes in his blog, “Being comfortable with not knowing is the first part of being able to question.” He further pens, “Naiveté gives others permission to step back and rethink in ways they might not normally be comfortable doing.”

What are you doing within your organization to create an environment where it’s safe for people to ask naive questions?

By Reba Schumacher, PCC

How Do We Move From Asking to Action

woman thinkingOne of my favorite radio programs is Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me. Each week the show’s producers select several listeners for each show and call them to appear on the program, playing various games featuring questions based on the week’s news. In most cases, the contestants receive a bit of latitude in getting the correct answer, such as receiving another guess and a hint should they initially guess wrong, or getting credit for correctly identifying part of the answer.

Recently after listening to a coach leader complain about her direct reports lining up outside her office daily waiting for her to provide answers to all their questions, I wondered how her role would be different if she were the one asking the questions? A visual of her doing the asking and the recipient imploring, “Wait, wait, don’t tell me!” flashed mischievously through my head. And yet, what is it that makes that idea unrealistic?

What if in an ideal world, our direct reports and colleagues invited questions rather than answers and advice, and what if they asked for more time to think about and imagine their own possibilities and pathways? In our current climate of quick fixes, quick responses, quick answers, how is it that we’ve strayed from the idea of “sitting with” and “living with” a question? The concept of thinking through an answer may be foreign when we are accustomed to having our queries answered quickly and in bite-sized pieces.

Often the worst thing we can do with a difficult question is answer it too quickly or even answer it at all. “What if” possibilities and fresh new ideas can take time to percolate and form. As coach leaders, our primary goal should be to ask powerful questions and invite those whom we lead to make the connections. This kind of thinking requires a change in mindset and a change in organizational culture. How will you persevere in leading connective inquiry within your organization? How will you create a climate of risk taking both in questioning and answering? How will you scaffold the best thinking through probing, prompting, and providing feedback? How will you nurture those whom you lead to demand, “Wait, wait don’t tell me”?

By Reba Schumacher, PCC

Treasures in a Seat Back Pocket

Recently as I was flying across the country, I was caught in that space and time when passengers are asked to power off their devices. Going for even a few minutes without something to read seemed unthinkable, so I reached for the airline magazine in the pocket in front of me. It fell open to an article about questioning. Considering that I’ve long been fascinated with and oftentimes mystified by the role of questioning in conversations, it felt as if a gift had fallen into my lap.

passenger reading on airplaneThe article was written by Warren Berger author of A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas. Berger highlighted a few true stories from his book about innovators and leaders who made other’s lives richer and oftentimes easier because they dared to ask not one but a series of powerful questions which inspired an amazing discovery, a noteworthy design, or a breakthrough idea. Effective leaders and innovators ask one question after another until arriving at the desired goal. However, it was the questions that Berger himself asks that I find thought provoking.

Berger’s questions include ones that reflect on our reluctance to keep alive the very act of asking powerful questions. His queries range from “What causes a four-year-old to ask fewer questions at five and even fewer at six?” to “How can we develop and improve our ability to question?” He also wonders what causes some of us to keep questioning while others stop. One of his most thought-provoking questions is, “If we look at the questioners versus non-questioners, who seems to be coming out ahead?”

Berger shares that there is no formula for forming “the big, beautiful question.” Rather he believes that it is more helpful for questioning to follow a process that often begins with one stepping back and seeing things differently and ends with taking action on a particular question. He further says that the best innovators and leaders are comfortable with not having the answer right away because they are focused on getting to the next question, such as: “If not this, then what?”

Being willing to question is one thing; questioning well is another. Berger shares that not all questions have the same positive effects. Of great importance is the tone of our questions. Rather than focusing on “Oh no, what are we going to do?” coach leaders are more likely to ask, “What if this change represents an opportunity for us?” “How might we make the most of this situation?” Questions of the second type with a more positive tone will tend to move toward solution focus and ultimately yield better answers. Organizations gravitate toward the questions leaders within that organization ask. If leaders ask questions that focus more on the problem – “Why are we falling behind in performance?” – then the organization is more likely to demonstrate a culture of turf-guarding and finger-pointing.

In the final analysis Berger suggests that we can develop and improve our ability to question. Knowing how to question begins with defining the big beautiful question. In his words, “A beautiful question is an ambitious yet actionable question that can begin to shift the way we perceive or think about something-and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about change.” The focus is on questions that can be acted upon, questions that can lead to tangible results and change. Among these are: “What is the fresh idea that will help our organization move forward?” “What will happen if we approach leadership and leading in a different way?”

By Reba Schumacher, PCC

Pinkie Swear

PinkieMy friend, John Wink, is a respected school leader and a stand-out colleague. One of the things I admire most about John is his capacity to share his experiences and wise leadership. Recently he tweeted a self-authored article titled the Five Fingers of Leadership. I was especially intrigued with his description of the pinkie’s role in leadership. Let’s face it, what can a pinkie do? Mine is pretty weak. I experimented with it as I wrote this nugget and found when it works alone, it can barely hold a pen, cannot pick up a piece of paper, or open that Hershey’s Kiss that waits for me. Frankly, in my recollection, it pretty much crooks needlessly all day, hanging there looking delicate, weak, and useless. It is good for a high-brow tea party, but not much use in my work-filled world.

Yet John describes this non-threatening, tiny, insignificant finger as the greatest digit of all. For him the pinkie symbolizes presuming positive intent and trust. He asks us to remember a time we “pinkie sweared”. What does that memory evoke for you? Maybe you’re reminded of an assurance, a vow, a commitment, that one promise that can never be broken. The pinkie could serve as our symbol that as coach leaders we must assume that people give their best even when they fail. Leaders must also assess the trust factor in a given situation before implementing the other fingers. So, if I am a coach leader, my pinkie reminds me to trust that others are doing their best all the time. If I am a coach leader I can be counted on to help those I lead to look for solutions, opportunities, and possibilities in the debris of failure.

Now, thanks to John, I look at my pinkie finger as the foundation digit – the true strength. Anyway, without my pinkie, how could I celebrate with my colleagues when success does inevitably come? When was the last time you heard…“Gimme a high four!”?

I’d like to invite you to join me in a new commitment. As a coach leader I promise to lead first with my smallest finger. Shall we “pinkie swear?”

Here is the link to John’s 5 Fingers of Leadership.

By Reba Schumacher, PCC

Whose Job is it Anyway?

Whose responsibility is it to build trust in a leader-follower relationship? The leader! It’s up to the leader to make the first move to earn the trust of his/her followers. Not only does the leader have to earn trust, the leader has to grant trust to others so they feel empowered to act responsibly and with authority to achieve the goals set before them.

Check out this Ted Talk video where General Stanley McChrystal shared some of his key leadership lessons. He emphasizes the responsibility leaders have to develop trust with those they lead when he says, “I came to believe that a leader isn’t good because they’re right; they’re good because they are willing to learn and to trust…You can get knocked down, and it hurts and it leaves scars. But if you’re a leader, the people you’ve counted on will help you up. And if you’re a leader, the people who count on you need you on your feet.”

Wise words for us all to consider.

We would love to hear what you think after watching this fifteen-minute video, and how it speaks to you as a leader and a human being. Trust us; it’s going to be time well spent.

By Reba Schumacher, PCC

Trust: The Foundation of Leadership

compass-leadershipTrust is an elusive thing. It takes a long time to capture, yet we can lose it forever with one tiny slip. One instance of thoughtless behavior can drive another away from us forever. As a coach leader, how often do you assess your levels of trust?

A friend tells the story of returning to his deceased father’s home after the memorial service to find that his sister had cleared the entire home while he was dealing with guests, arranging for floral contributions, and lingering for a longer goodbye at his father’s gravesite. Emptying the home was no small feat since his parents were married forty years prior to his mother’s death and had acquired many beautiful and valuable possessions. The incident happened twenty-five years ago. My friend has not spoken to his sister since. Twenty-five years of holidays, births, celebrations, and conversations have passed unshared between the two. My friend explained that he cared little for the possessions. In fact, he said if she had just asked for what she wanted he would have given her anything. She lost his trust by premeditating the heist and by not trusting him to care for her. We may not agree with the severity of his choice, yet we can agree that relationships are destroyed or enhanced by trust.

Applying this example to school leadership helps us understand why having trusting relationships in schools is increasingly desired. Trust is both multi-faceted and multi-layered. It is multi-faceted in that to have trust one must be both trusting and trustworthy. My friend could no longer trust his sister because she didn’t trust him to have her best interests at heart. He also couldn’t trust her because she was dishonest and duplicitous (not worthy of his trust). Similarly, school personnel may mistrust leaders who make changes without their input or who tell them one thing while telling others a different truth. Recognizing the two faces of trust reminds us of a quote by Ernest Hemingway: “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.”

Trust is multilayered because it is in the eyes of the beholder. We all look at trust through different lenses. Leaders may lose trust in staff members who are never on time, over commit and under deliver, or who simply are unable to consistently get quality results. Staff may lose trust in a leader who never asks about a sick child or who behaves inconsistently. “She knew I was out for three days, but all she wanted to know was when I planned to reteach concepts missed on the benchmark test.” Or, “On my evaluation, he scored me as below expectations, but when I asked him what I could do to improve he said not to worry about it. He keeps sending mixed messages.”

As leaders who aspire to build trust in our schools, we are often baffled if our attempts at trust-building are futile. We work at being trusting and trustworthy, yet nothing moves. Our efforts may be failing if we are only looking at trust from our perspective. What if we are failing in the trust department because we are unaware of the lenses of others? Astute coach-leaders understand that trust is in the eyes of the beholder and regard trust through multiple lenses.

In their book Trust Works, Blanchard, Olmstead, and Lawrence name four filters for trust: Able, Believable, Connected, and Dependable. The authors tell us we can “bust” or “boost” trust with our actions and behaviors. They also tell us by being aware that trust affects our leadership, we can intentionally impact levels of trust. The goal is to become more trusting and more trustworthy. The book helps readers understand that to have trusting relationships and organizations, a culture of trust must be built. An undisputable fact we do know is that high achieving schools seldom have low levels of trust, but low achieving schools always have low levels of trust.

What are our school leaders learning about the impact of trust on student achievement?

Learning to trust is one of life’s most difficult tasks.”

-Isaac Watts

“To be trusted is a greater compliment than being loved.”

-George MacDonald

By Reba Schumacher, PCC

The Essential “Mindset” of a Coach Leader

male school leaderIt’s almost inevitable. Those we lead get excited about their goals and plans and begin the work it takes to implement their ideas. Then, over time, they begin to encounter bumps and naysayers along the way. Just when they are about to achieve something remarkable, they give up, discouraged by their doubters. It has been speculated that many people quit at a time when just a ten percent increase in effort would result in goal attainment. It rarely occurs to the dreamer that what appears to be a barrier is only a detour. In the mire of perceived failure, they seldom remember that some of their best detours revealed a new landscape and even greater horizons.

How can a talented coach leader help navigate the detours which often cause people to abandon their plans and abort their missions just inches short of great success? They can help identify strengths/gifts which will fortify the visionary to continue with determination. Wise and gifted coach leaders act as tremendous allies who help keep that other person grounded emotionally and aware of what effort needs to be exerted to achieve their desired goal.

Leaders who lead from a coaching mindset trust that people are fully capable of dreaming, achieving, and implementing their big ideas and strategies if just one other believes in them, asks them exactly the right questions, encourages them with a timely phrase, and then deeply listens while suspending judgment. Finally, leaders who lead from a coaching mindset are there to cheer on the achiever at the moment when celebration is appropriate. Or, if there is another detour, they can sit there saying nothing and just being fully present with the other person.

Who are you as a leader? How do support others taking action toward their goals? What is your “mindset” and how do you advocate for others?

By Reba Schumacher, PCC

Mindset of a Coach Leader

business woman

In their book Multipliers, Liz Wiseman and Greg McKeown write that leaders who are multipliers “…operate from a belief that talent exists everywhere and they can use it at its highest if they can simply identify the genius in people.” As I read the above sentence, it strikes me that leaders who have truly internalized the mindset of a coach are multipliers. Take Christy, a principal, who consistently works on one overarching goal-to lead as a “coach leader.” She has worked hard to successfully integrate the skills of listening, paraphrasing, and presuming positive intent in her daily conversations. Additionally, she utilizes reflective feedback to inspire her teachers to their best thinking and best work. Still, like many dedicated leaders, Christy wasn’t satisfied. There was something she could sense was missing; she wanted to think like a coach. It wasn’t automatic, and that was the nuance that caused her to stretch, to strive, to grow.

Recently, Christy’s coaching skills were put to the test when she decided to develop a common lesson plan template for all teachers in her school to use. Obligingly, she collected samples from her usual dependable sources. At the next faculty meeting, she displayed the templates and asked teachers to evaluate the offerings in preparation for a consensus decision. Unexpectedly, there was immediate pushback from even her most ardent supporters. One challenged, “Who are the audiences for our lesson plans?” Others joined in with, “As the principal, what is your purpose for the template?” and “How can we all use the same template when our content areas are so diverse?”

As Christy shared her story she mused, “Because I’ve been coaching teachers for some time and because I’ve shared with them what I’m learning in my work with my coach, together we’ve learned to communicate. We are a school of big personalities. We’ve always spoken our minds. Now we can freely communicate while maintaining our relationships.”

Continuing, Christy reflected, “When the teacher asked, ‘What’s your purpose?’ It occurred to me that my purpose for reviewing lesson plans is to ensure a common set of standards for our lessons. I also realized that I always focus first on their essential questions and their diagnostic questions. When those questions are well developed, I feel we have our standard.” Christy’s next step was to take a risk. She agreed to support their thinking as long as they adhered to a set of collaboratively developed standards. When her supervisors supported her decision, teachers at her school were off and running with a renewed commitment to planning.

Christy declares that these days the lesson plans are phenomenal. Teachers include everything that needs to be included, and better yet, the actual lessons are as impressive as the plans that drive them. Best of all, the decision to write quality plans didn’t have to be a top-down decision. As Christy says, “It really isn’t about the plans; it’s about the planning conversations.”

When Christy was asked what it took for her to internalize the mind-set of a coach leader in response to this situation, she listed five essentials:

  • A willingness to be coached by her teachers
  • Trusting and trustworthy relationships-(“I trust that when I collaborate with those I lead, results will always be better.”)
  • “It’s not about me; it’s about what works best for the teachers, and ultimately, the students.”
  • Willingness to let go of “the” agenda
  • Willingness to listen to alternative ideas

Christy will always challenge herself to be a better leader. That is in her make-up. And yet, these days, she knows that her coach mindset allows her to recruit the very best talent and unleash the genius in people.

By Reba Schumacher, PCC

How Are You Leading for Results?

Some high schools have begun a tradition each spring of posting in a highly visible area of the school’s lawn a straight line of simple signs with the names of colleges and universities where their graduates have been accepted for fall enrollment. So imagine for a moment driving by a school and seeing that row of white cardboard placards spelling out in block lettering: Colgate, Brown, Stanford, Rice, Northwestern, Wellesley, and so forth. It would seem fairly obvious at first glance what this school values as at least one of its results areas. It may also be safe to assume that this results focus –producing college bound graduates – impacts every leadership decision made within the four walls.

If you are the passer-by in question, you perhaps speculate that the school leaders inside emphasize application to and enrollment in prestigious universities or that they concentrate on exceptional achievement scores. However, let’s argue for a moment that we can’t make that assumption. What if college acceptance is a bonus outcome and that building the leadership capacity of every individual within is the actual intended result? In that case, visualize a sudden shift in what the school leader holds as a primary emphasis. One that values committed conversations which are intentional in their aim to move students and staff beyond the status quo to an entirely new level of expectation. These exchanges include principal-to-teacher conversations about highly effective questioning strategies, teacher-to-teacher conversations regarding student-centered classrooms, student-to-teacher conversations outlining modifications of projects and products, and many more. In her book Fierce Leadership (2009) Susan Scott writes: “If you want to become a great leader, gain the capacity to connect with colleagues at a deep level…or lower your aim.”

Great leaders connect by inspiring those whom they lead (colleagues as well as students) to find their own ways of leading within the organization. Instead of holding others accountable, they “hold them able”: able to make decisions, able to execute a plan, able to make an impactful difference. Modeling “holding others able” then becomes the primary focus of highly effective leaders. Leaders who model this brand of accountability substitute coaching and questioning for blaming or pointing fingers. Asking, Given this outcome, what is your next step? or What would you most like to improve in your area of accountability? becomes the stimulus for a rich conversation with a colleague or student regarding higher expectations.

This focus on conversations, which holds others able, shifts our thinking from perceiving effective leadership as a means for getting the results we want to building leadership capacity in others as the desired result. Results-oriented leaders make open, transparent, respectful conversations in feedback-rich, development-rich environments the core of their leadership. Whether our goal is increased college enrollment, exemplary achievement scores, or improved market share, careful attention to how we lead affects outcomes of who we lead.

By Reba Schumacher, PCC
Coaching For Results Global

Which Door Will You Open?

Sitting across the restaurant table from Ava, I could see her eyes cloud with pain when I asked about her topic for today’s coaching conversation. She systematically chewed her bottom lip, sucked in a long-ragged breath, and plunged in, “My adult niece asked to move in with me for six months and I’m already regretting saying yes. I like my life the way it is. My husband and I enjoy our solitude, we relish our time together. This could wreak havoc in our world. I am so worried.”

Gently probing, I asked Ava what was the most important thing to know about the situation. “I am afraid I will destroy my relationship with my niece, because I really don’t want her to live with me.”

I asked Ava to envision two doors. Behind both is a future with her niece. Behind the first is a relationship which is carefully designed. Behind the other waits a relationship devoid of goals or planning. “Which door will you choose? ”

Ava grabbed a pencil and began to scribble on a paper napkin. “My goal for my relationship with my niece is:
To provide support.
To be generous.
To be respectful.
To model a strong work ethic
To be loving.
To be thoughtful.
To be available.

For the first time that morning, Ava smiled and asserted, “I am in control of determining the outcome of this relationship.”

Like Ava, we always have a choice in determining our future. Even the effects of factors beyond our control can be impacted by setting goals for how we will respond to certain circumstances. It is, at once, as simple and profound as that. Your future, (and mine), will be determined by two things: the goals that we set, and the commitments that we honor. What goals will you write for 2012? What doors are awaiting your consideration?

by Reba Schumacher, ACC
Coaching For Results Global

Reba Schumacher is certified through the International Coach Federation as an Associate Certified Coach. She is a veteran Texas public school administrator with thirty-three years experience. Currently she is an independent consultant and leadership coach, and her experience supervising highly effective, visionary school principals and district directors contributes significantly to her success as a coach. To read more about Diana and other CFR coaches, go to and click on “coaches.”