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Give Better Advice

ask great questions Feb 05, 2023


There are times when your CEO or Executive Director may approach the board with a specific request for direction on what to do about a high-risk situation.

When time is of the essence, a director’s view may be required immediately for input to the board’s discussion so that a consensus can be reached quickly, and direction given. Or your CEO may be looking for validation of their pending decision. In that case, your job is to act as a sounding board to help ensure nothing has been missed.

But this Savvy Director post is not about that kind of urgent scenario. Instead, we’re taking a deeper dive into how directors provide advice and share their insight under normal conditions.

I’m going to suggest that you’ll give better advice by asking some key questions instead of just baldly stating your opinion at the outset.


My Opinion Has More Power

As a director, you may feel like you’re giving away your power by taking the more challenging and time-consuming route of asking questions instead of expressing your opinion up front. But let’s keep in mind that your individual opinion is just that – an opinion. While your insight is appreciated, it doesn’t represent direction from the board until the chair has ensured everyone has been heard, and consensus has been reached or a vote has been held.

It’s true that asking questions is more time intensive. It requires a director to focus on building trust with the CEO and the rest of the team. Often, we seek expediency by defaulting to expressing an opinion with a view to it being the source of truth. Unfortunately, that method is also an efficient way to generate resistance.

Helping management find their own answers by asking the right questions is an alternate approach. After all, in most organizations management always knows more than directors do, because they work inside it every day. Asking a good question is a safe way to guide the discussion. It helps you be likable while building trust. The process just takes a little longer.

Savvy directors who appreciate the influence style of ‘guide from the side’ and ‘collaborate with others’, know about this approach. They invest time in asking questions, listening carefully to the answers, and then asking a follow-up question, such as “What else?” to help the CEO think it through.

For example, you might ask the CEO, “What is the real challenge here for you?” listen to the response, and then ask, “What else”? Renowned author and executive coach, Michael Bungay Stanier refers to this as the ‘AWE’ question – Ask What Else?

For a director, asking good questions is also an excellent kick starter if the boardroom is quiet and you don’t know what to say when management has raised a challenge for the board to review.


Three Simple Questions

While reading a recent article in Inc. by Bill Murphy Jr., I was inspired to think about how we as board directors could give better advice to management using one or all of these three questions:

  1. “What do you think you should do?”
  2. “What other facts would help you make a decision?”
  3. “How do you think you would feel if you decided to do X?”

Asking open-ended questions like these helps shape important decisions while empowering others to act. There is safety for you as a director in asking questions - you guide the discussion while empowering management to demonstrate their thinking through their responses.

“Trying to directly show someone they are wrong, even via facts, literally makes them shut the logic off and hold to their beliefs more stubbornly. Rather than giving direct advice that could conflict with their beliefs, helping people find their answers by asking questions can generate better transformational results.” Sahin Guvenilir

Let’s explore this alternative to the traditional way of giving advice using the three questions above.


“What do you think you should do?”

The board’s role as a sounding board is made easier by asking the CEO their view of what they should do. Being in the business every day, they’re bound to have more experience with the subject they’re asking about. And, depending on the issue, the CEO likely has a pretty good idea of what they want to do. They could simply be looking for validation.

As a director, giving advice can be like navigating a minefield. Sometimes you’re not sure the CEO really wants to hear what you would suggest. Asking curious questions instead helps to build trust, because it causes you to be seen as an interested outsider who thinks their perspective might help. It’s amazing what happens when we stay quiet and listen.

Asking for the CEO’s view allows them to share their ideas in a safe environment. It puts the focus on them and establishes your director role as more of a sounding board than a problem-solver. Expressing your blunt opinion before the CEO has a chance to state their rationale risks creating resistance between the board and the CEO.

Instead, let the CEO take ownership of the decision. The directors can then ask follow-up questions while performing their due diligence. It’s a win/win.

Questions of this type give freedom to the CEO to discover more about themselves rather than listen to the directors’ opinions as the default option. The CEO becomes less dependent on the directors for all the answers, and directors avoid stunting the CEO’s growth as a leader. Besides, if the board is making the CEO’s decision for them, where does accountability reside? 


”What other facts would help you make a decision?”

When you ask the CEO what additional information they might need for their decision-making process, it’s a powerful way of taking emotion out of a discussion. It encourages them to separate information from feelings or assumptions, and it does so in a way that doesn't sound accusatory. It also puts the focus on the CEO’s experience, not that of the board.

This alternative to giving advice helps them find their own answers. The combination of asking questions that gently probe and guide, then listening carefully to the response, can take extra time but ultimately it lessens resistance.

“If you can help someone to think about a problem more clearly and gently guide them in the direction of possible solutions, you’re leaving room for that person to arrive at their own insights and make their own decisions – so that they have more ‘ownership’ of the potential solution.” – Warren Berger

Directors may find this approach less satisfying than dispensing advice. But empowering the CEO doesn’t necessarily mean disempowering the board directors, especially if they believe their role includes supporting the CEO’s work. Collectively, the board helps the CEO to grow their skills using a consultative, questioning approach.

While asking questions in lieu of expressing an immediate opinion adds time to the decision-making process, it can keep the advice monster at bay. Sometimes people don’t really want your advice after putting something on the table. Sometimes they just want you to listen.

That’s not to say giving advice is always a bad thing. Sometimes people actually do need and want it. Ask them.


“How do you think you would feel if you decided to do X?”

This is a gentler way of asking, “What do you think will happen?”

Here’s an example:

  • ‘Accusatory Director’ asks the CEO, “Why do you continue producing that one product with a limited profit margin?” CEO responds, “Because we’ve put so much into developing it, it would feel like a defeat if we quit.”
  • ‘Savvy Director’ asks the CEO, “What do you think will happen if we stop producing that product?” CEO responds, “If we stop producing that product, I’ll be a bit nervous, but I think I’ll also feel free and invigorated to try something new.”

If you’re the director who can help a CEO get to a decision with positive emotions, they’ll likely remember you positively for it. It shows that you believe in them and that they had the answers within them. People with high emotional intelligence (EQ) understand making another person feel good communicates that you do in fact care about their feelings. And they will remember you for it.

People remember how you make them feel.

In my view, this method of giving better advice through questions is a positive way to build a healthy culture of inquiry in the boardroom.


Your takeaways:

  • Use your director’s sense to know when to skip the advice. Ask questions to help someone figure it out for themselves instead.  
  • Giving advice to others gives us a sense of control and status, which may make us feel good but usually isn't all that helpful to the other person.
  • Instead of giving advice, we can guide people to find their own answers through a combination of listening and asking questions.
  • Asking "What is the real challenge here for you?" followed by "And what else?" helps people focus on the most important problem they are trying to solve.




Thank you.


Scott Baldwin is a certified corporate director (ICD.D) and co-founder of – an online hub with hundreds of guideline questions and resources to help directors prepare for their board role.


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