Consider the Barriers That Prevent Good Questions

From fear of asking a dumb question to making others uncomfortable with a question, plenty of factors prevent directors from asking questions they should ask. Boards should remove these obstacles as much as possible and foster an environment that’s conducive to all directors asking the questions they need to ask.

Preparation, Engagement are Key to Top Queries

Not all unasked questions are due to the boardroom environment. Directors who study the meeting agenda beforehand, are familiar with the discussion topics, and are attentive and engaged throughout board meetings are more likely to ask good questions than directors who don’t do those things. 

There's an Art to Asking Good Questions

There’s a right way and a wrong way to ask questions. Speaking clearly and concisely when asking a question, leaving out emotions and opinions while asking, and framing questions in a forward-thinking manner, instead of focusing on the past, are just a few of the tips directors should heed when asking questions.

Webinar Recap: Lyn McDonell, president of The Accountability Group and author, explores how boards can benefit from asking the right questions at the right time.

Design Lines

Asking questions is one of the most important responsibilities of any board director. Asking the right questions fosters a culture of curiosity, inclusivity, and accountability – while driving better decision-making and outcomes for the board and its stakeholders. 

In theory, asking questions seems simple enough. But often, it’s easier said than done. Board members must understand what questions to ask – and how and when to ask them.

“I believe that the art of asking questions is important today, but it’s going to get even more important as we face so much disruption. We need to adapt and be future-fit,” said Lyn McDonell, president of The Accountability Group and author of The Art of Asking Questions as a Director, a must-read chapter in the second and upcoming third editions of “The Handbook for Board Governance.”

How can board members perfect the art of asking questions? 

Recently, McDonell joined us to discuss why questions matter – and how directors can improve their question-asking skills. 

McDonell explored:

  • Why good questions drive better outcomes
  • How to create the right time, place, and context for thoughtful questions
  • The essential board meeting factors to foster candor, curiosity, and accountability – while cutting through false assumptions, spin, and sugarcoating

Here, we share key takeaways from this compelling session.

Great Board Directors Have Voice and Value

In an ideal world, every member of the board would be active and engaged at every board meeting. But that’s not reality.

“We’ve learned from board evaluations that one-third or half of board members are actively engaged in the agenda, discuss, and ask questions. But there’s another cohort that are bystanders,” said McDonell. 

Those bystanders may listen well and follow the business. But they don’t often ask questions and offer their perspectives. “We kind of lose their voice at the meeting,” explained McDonell. 

There are certain qualities of engaged board members that make a difference. According to McDonell, great board members have “voice and value.” Voice is speaking with regularity without dominating. It’s choosing appropriate timing, using the appropriate volume, and delivering with confidence.

On the other hand, value incorporates relevance of comments, preparedness, and strategic application of expertise. “It’s ‘connecting the dots’ between issues and asking the right questions,” said McDonell.

There Are Many Barriers That Stand in the Way of Asking Questions in the Boardroom

It’s important to ask the right questions in the boardroom. But often, directors don’t.

There are many reasons directors don’t ask questions. Among webinar attendees, top reasons include:

  • Fear of asking a “dumb question”
  • Not wanting to make others feel uncomfortable
  • Everyone else seems fine with what was presented
  • Don’t feel sufficiently prepared to engage
  • Not enough time on the agenda
  • Board culture doesn’t welcome debate

McDonell also shared another reason board members may fail to ask questions. At public organizations, the board meeting might be open and there may be observers present. “That is a very intimidating thing for directors,” she said. “But we don’t want to shy away from the business of the board because we have observers.”

Questions Accomplish a Lot for Boards and the Organizations They Serve

Boards must overcome common barriers – and start asking the right questions at the right time in the right ways. But why?

Because questions accomplish so much. Namely, questions empower the board to:

  • Gather essential information
  • Clarify what is being said or proposed
  • Test assumptions
  • Empower ownership and engagement
  • Generate change, improvement, solutions, opportunities, and innovation
  • Shift focus on the conversation

In addition, effective questioning:

  • Makes a meeting come alive
  • Sparks unscripted dialogue
  • Enhances everyone’s understanding
  • Helps avoid group-think and psychological traps, which leads to better decision-making
  • Enables the board to model a constructive learning culture
  • Allows management to feel safe to share its challenges

“Questions are a potent tool for boards,” explained McDonell. “Questions allow for deeper understanding and transform a board meeting to a genuine dialogue.” 

Boards Have a Critical Role to Play

Board directors hold significant responsibility. In order to get from point A to point B, they have to make many decisions. 

Asking sound questions is essential to making good decisions. “The buck stops with the board,” said McDonell. “Boards can’t be sleepy and complacent. They have to ask great questions about how we are doing things, where we are going, and what is needed to get there.” 

McDonell discussed board responsibility, in the context of questions. Boards are responsible for:

  • Establishing identity and direction 
  • Ensuring capacity and overseeing management
  • Overseeing performance and impact
  • Overseeing risk
  • Ensuring financial stewardship
  • Ensuring stakeholder accountability
  • Developing good governance

Asking questions is essential to fulfilling all these responsibilities. 

Preparation is the Foundation for Asking the Right Questions

McDonell went on to share tips for effectively asking questions in the boardroom. In order to ask meaningful questions, directors must prepare in advance for the board meeting. 

“It’s so important to prepare in advance,” she said. “Come up with three, four, or five questions.” 

Preparation for a board meeting should include:

  • Doing a “flyover” to see what’s in the package
  • Reviewing the agenda and noting key discussions 
  • Using a highlighter (either physical or digital) to underline essential points in items
  • Sourcing knowledge and insight. This involves imagining what needs to go right, who is affected, and what will change.
  • Writing down any comments or questions 

Engaging in the Board Meeting is Essential

It’s important to remain fully engaged during the board meeting. Directors must avoid distractions and focus on the meeting at hand. “It’s important to listen with diligence,” said McDonell.

She shared the following tips for engaging during the board meeting:

  • Tune in and be present
  • Listen with a “Beginner’s Mind” 
  • Determine whether everything makes sense or if there are things that are fuzzy or left unsaid
  • Show respect for others, the presenters, and the Chair

There Are Actions Directors Can Take to Improve the Way They Ask Questions

The art of asking questions doesn’t come easily to everyone. Instead, it requires conscious effort.

McDonell shared plenty of practical tips for asking questions:

  • Be clear as to what you are asking. Don’t start talking until you have your question framed.
  • Lead into it and maintain flow.
  • Be neutral and conversational.
  • Don’t add emotions or opinions.
  • Convey encouragement and inquisitive energy – not criticism.
  • Use “we” instead of “you.”
  • Instead of giving advice, phrase it into a question.
  • Ask questions about the future more than the past.

The Right Framework Can Fuel Better Questions

McDonell shared a high-level framework that can help boards ask better questions. “I see it like an X-ray. It takes the stages, and it illuminates questions at every stage,” she explained. “This can be applied overall to a strategy or an initiative.” 

McDonell noted that there’s a detailed director’s oversight framework with sample questions in The Handbook of Board Governance, 3rd edition.

She closed the session by reminding attendees that questions are vitally important to fulfilling the responsibilities of the board. Asking the right questions fuels better decisions. Those decisions have a significant impact on the board and the organization as a whole. “As a board director, you have a gift to change the future,” she said. 

Board retreats require an investment in money, resources, and time. Are you looking for practical tips for planning and executing a board retreat that’s high-value, impactful, and even fun? Save your seat for “Get the Most from Your Next Board Retreat or Strategic Planning Session,” featuring CEO and author Tom Iselin of First Things First.

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