Why very successful CEOs don’t provide answers

by Uju Onwuzulike

April 21, 2017 | 12:30 am
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I totally understand, as a CEO, the urge to always provide answers to your people especially when they are facing work related challenges is always there. Moreover, traditionally, we believe that when we are providing answers to them we are telling them we have the knowledge of the business and importantly that we have the capacity to lead. So my question to every CEO is, “As a CEO, are you helping your people and your organization to grow when you provide answers to them especially when they are in difficult situations?”


Few years back, I remembered having a meeting with a CEO of a bank and during the meeting; a call came from one of his senior managers who was trying to figure out how to handle a customer’s loan issue. Like we all do, the CEO provided an answer to the senior manager and he ended up thanking the CEO for helping him out of that difficult situation. After the CEO’s phone conversation, I quickly said to him, I know you provided the answer to him with one intention and that is to help your bank grow, but in the real sense of it, you are not helping your bank to grow (you are doing the opposite). Then he asked me, why do I say so?


The reality is that every time, a CEO, senior management or a manager provides an answer to their people’s questions when he or she could have asked some questions of them to help them find their own answers, you have saved them from thinking. A key message for every CEO is that: “when you save your people from thinking, you save them from growing. Sadly, if they are not growing as a result of not thinking, expecting them to grow or improve their performances is like doing the impossible. If you give your people in the organization (even our biological children) the easy way out by giving them the answer – and thereby preventing them from figuring it out themselves – they will take the easy way out in every situation. And this means, they will keep coming back to you the CEO, or the senior management or the managers for all the answers. And this is one of the major reasons why some organizations don’t grow – and you know the CEO should not be the only one thinking – everyone should.


One of the critical reasons why CEOs should not be providing the answers and should even discourage senior management and managers from doing same is that your power as a leader does not come from the answers but from the questions you ask, because your questions should be able to do these three things below:


  1. Force your people to think (I think this is the best gift you can have as a CEO – having people that can think).
  2. Provide your people a thought process to follow, which they can use for the next problem they face (this is what every CEO should focus on).
  3. Allow your people to own their answers (versus relying on your answers).


Allowing your people to own their answers is a magical way to increase performance, because it drives more ownership in your people. But would this mean that the CEO will never provide answers to the people challenges at any time? Naturally, he might not always avoid giving an answer, but the main thing is for the CEO to know that he or she has to drive more ownership in their people – and that comes when your people own the answers.


Having told CEOs not to provide the answers but rather ask and guide their people for the answers, one might say, how do I ask for the answers? That leads me to an exercise we conducted last weekend during a strategic leadership retreat for a company, where I asked the first person to seek for a solution from a very senior person while the senior person ask him a question that will guide him come up with an answer. The question he asked was, “What is the best thing to do here in this your situation?” The problem with this question of “the best thing to do” is that when he gives you his best answer, it might not be the answer that you expect or want as a CEO. That will compel you to come up with an alternative answer thereby decreasing his ownership of the answer. So the best way to ask is, “What options do we have?” Then guide them in providing various choices that will definitely lead to the best answer – and they will take ownership because they were the source of that answer.


Finally, very successful CEOs know that their people take more ownership in delivering their own ideas than others’. Instead of just providing solutions, they encourage the people they work with to come up with their own answer. And remember because your people know you will not dish them an already made answer, on their own and in their closet, they will always be striving to come with solutions that will help them win in every situation- all because you encouraged them to think. So imagine what will happen to your organization if everyone is striving to come up with an answer on their own?


This is truly how to make your people your greatest asset.


Feel free and share your thoughts, comments or questions with me.


Uju Onwuzulike


by Uju Onwuzulike

April 21, 2017 | 12:30 am
12893  |   93   |   0  |   Start Conversation

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