The Transformative Power of Asking the Right Questions

Updated: Dec 6, 2020

“For my executive coaching experience to be successful, I need to achieve what I, myself, have identified as the most important outcome.”


At first glance, that statement seems like it must be accurate. It rings true and resonates with much of the current self-help ideologies. Set a goal. Take action each day, and so forth.

But often, just initiating a process and following a logical order of steps can lead to one or more unexpected—but actually more important—benefits than the goal originally identified.

For example, you've decided you want to lose weight to look better. That desire to improve your appearance motivates you to change your diet. Along the way, however, as you make healthier eating choices, you discover that looking trim is only one benefit. You're also enjoying having more energy, improved sleep, and lower blood pressure and cholesterol.

When looking for the right coach, most executives have a list with common boxes to tick off. The coach who will be most qualified to help our organization will have at least one graduate degree, C-suite professional experience, and the appropriate certification.

Those criteria are certainly fine. But it may surprise you to know that a clinical license may be the most important credential an executive coach can have.

Before you think I'm talking about bringing in someone who will throw out words like "get in touch with your emotions," let me dispel a common myth about licensed clinicians: They deal with deeply rooted psychological issues by bringing up the past and possibly blaming my parents.

The fact is the majority of clinical work done today does not deal with deeply rooted psychological issues, and the most talented clinicians help their clients to make the most from their present to enhance and shape their future.

The key term here is "licensed." To become licensed, one has to earn a minimum of a master's degree from an accredited institution, then complete a 2-3-year residency under supervision, and finally pass a comprehensive exam.

You may also be surprised to learn that while certifications are worthwhile, too many certifications can be obtained simply by paying a fee and completing a brief training. Many certifications require no degree or experience at all!

So, what makes a licensed clinician a great executive coach? It is their finessed experience with the art of the question. This is not to say that there are not great coaches out there that are not licensed. After all, we don’t have a monopoly on the market of process or questioning. In fact, I highly recommend the book Leadership Excellence by Design authored by Dr. Kelly M.G. Whelan. She is certainly qualified, possessing a Doctorate in Strategic Leadership. After each excellent chapter, there is a section called "The Coaching Corner" that offers several strategic questions that provide food for thought and provoke action on the part of an excellent leader.

The value of asking the right questions cannot be underestimated. Let’s look back at the weight loss example. We all know someone, probably several people, who struggle with their weight. They order meals through the mail. Or join a program—usually every January 1.

To be successful, these individuals need to ask themselves the right question every morning before they start their day. Before I reveal what, that question is, let me explain something interesting about the way the brain works with questions.

Your brain will answer every question you pose to it—even if you don’t actively try to come up with an answer. All you have to do is ask the question repeatedly. So if the dieters mentioned earlier ask themselves, “Why am I so fat?” every day, they’ll come up with the answers—I eat too many sweets; I don’t exercise; did someone say pasta? And on and on.

But those answers don’t help them at all.

Suppose they had an expert in the art of the question working with them. That coach might say something like this: If I were struggling with this issue, I would ask myself, “What can I do to become healthier and enjoy the process?”

Remember, the brain will answer that question as long as it continues to be asked over a period of time. This is just one example of a question that when paired with a few other right questions can help a person reach their goal. And more importantly, help them gain benefits that far outweigh what they originally wanted.

Executives deal with complex issues and teams of complex individuals. You have likely identified some specific outcomes. Ted needs to be more decisive. Alice could expand her big picture thinking. Britt is too impulsive. Jenna has trouble engaging and motivating her team. Those results could very well be what your team needs to be more cohesive, effective, and productive.

But maybe there's more transformation waiting to happen. Perhaps when the right questions are asked, you'll be pleasantly surprised by the unintended outcomes that surface.

As a CEO, I was constantly involved in fluid situations involving smart people with varied personalities and strengths. Understanding how to ask the right questions and navigate through those issues and personalities is key to being an effective executive coach and delivering impactful results for an organization.


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