Try a Little Socrates

Beyond having the answers, finance and other leaders benefit from asking the right questions, says Harvard's Rob Kaplan.

In the debate over whether executives can learn to be great leaders, Robert Steven Kaplan of Harvard Business School is in the camp that believes they can. In his work with C-level executives, he finds a useful way to begin the leadership journey is by asking the right questions -- of themselves and their subordinates.

Kaplan's approach is beautifully discussed in a recent edition of Harvard Business School Working Knowledge. "My objective is to help leaders reach their potential by helping them realize that they don't need to have all the answers or do this alone," he says. "I hope they will see that framing a question and listening can be enormously powerful in leading to excellent decisions. A leader needs to master the use of inquiry and reflection as well as advocacy in order to build his or her organization and career."

According to Rob Kaplan, some key questions senior leaders should ask:

* Have you developed a clear vision and key priorities?

* Does the way you spend your time match your key priorities?

* Do you coach and also solicit feedback from your key subordinates?

* Do you have a succession-planning process in place?

* If you had to design your organization today with a clean sheet of paper, what would you change?

* Do you act as a role model?

What's useful about this set of questions is that they encourage a balance of reflection and practical action. They also deal with disparate aspects of leadership, starting with the basics (vision and key priorities, time allocation) and extending to long-term management effectiveness (succession planning, organizational strategy).

CFOs in particular might contemplate these questions vis-à-vis the finance department. Especially valuable to finance chiefs are the questions addressing succession planning and design of the finance organization. Succession planning is critical in finance, not only because it ensures consistency and continuity of finance leadership, but because grooming future finance leadership fuels the morale of key players.

Meanwhile, by taking stock of the finance organization's design, the finance chief can practice the discipline it takes to ensure the goals of finance are on track -- while adding value to the company.

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