March 26, 2023

The power of powerful questions

What is the most powerful question anyone has ever asked you? And what made it so powerful for you?

As a professional coach, one of the most important skills I bring to clients is an ability to ask powerful questions. The idea is to spark reflection, prompting my clients to pause and think before answering.

I learned a lot about asking questions during my training as a coach, but the most important lessons I’ve learned about questioning have come from the leaders in my own life. They have asked questions that led me to reflect on what really mattered to me, who I wanted to be in the world, and what I wanted to do with my skills and talents. They helped me to create a Bespoke Life.

Now I hope to do the same for you. As I work to build community among professionals seeking growth and satisfaction in their personal and professional lives, I am starting to ask the first of many such questions in the Bespoke Life Network. My goal is to start conversation, of course, but more importantly to empower members to find their own answers – and then share what they’ve learned with others.

But it all starts with the right question.

These are four of many that have had great meaning and impact for me.

Learning to question

I remember meeting David Brewer on my first day of medical school. He was a professional educator on the faculty at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine. But I primarily knew him as the kind and supportive man who posted grades, then provided support and reassurance to any students who needed it.

David also posed some thought-provoking questions that have served me throughout my career. As I settled in at medical school and then began pondering the career that would follow, he taught me to ask the classic news reporter’s questions about my career: Who am I? What do I want to do, why do I want to do it, how do I want to do it, and where might doing what I want to do take me? The most meaningful of these questions, for me, was the why. What was my why? What is yours?

In the early years after medical school, I would often call David to talk through these questions when I hit a turning point in my career. Over time, they became a reflex as I ran into roadblocks or opportunities, and eventually, I began posing them to others.

One of the most fun parts of developing as a professional is that, if you are very lucky, you may eventually realize you are supporting others just the way your mentors supported you. Looking back, I can see that David’s questions formed the foundation for the Hip Pocket Questions I share with my coaching clients. We use them to gain context and clarity about what is happening – so we can make better decisions about what’s next. David taught me to ask really good questions, and his mentorship of me continues to reverberate in my life. I am delighted to report that while preparing this blog post and asking permission of the people whose stories I share here, I had the distinct pleasure of reconnecting with David and his wife, whose continued friendship I treasure.

Listening to your heart

I have told this story before, but it’s always top of mind when I think of lessons from the leaders in my own life. When Dr. Jerry Kruse, now dean and provost at my alma mater Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, was helping me navigate a tricky situation in my own work, he sat down and asked me a most unexpected question: “What does your heart want to do more than anything in your professional life?”

When he asked this question in this way, he gave me permission to think differently about my career. In that moment, I saw that I didn’t necessarily have to follow the prescribed path up the career ladder. I could do things differently, and in fact, I did.

What ultimately came out of this conversation was my own pursuit of a public health degree and a pivot to caring for the health of communities, and not just individuals. I sought to shift from focusing on the health of one to the health of many, not unlike a shift I am navigating now in my coaching work.

I also began formulating the signature question that guides my coaching work now – what matters most to you? Today, I build my client engagements around the answers to that question, as each of them works to create a bespoke life.

My deepest gratitude to Jerry for this very powerful question that changed my career trajectory.

Making space for well-being

Midway through my leadership career, I learned a very important lesson from Dr. Lois Nora, who at the time was dean and president at Northeast Ohio Medical University, where I was chair of the Department of Behavioral and Community Health Sciences. I learned more than a little from that job, and from Lois’ leadership, about how to lead change, how to reassure teams in challenging times, and other classic leadership capabilities. But I also learned something a little more unexpected about how to lead.

I had just returned to work in the wake of a very challenging personal health situation. Rather than asking how I would prioritize lapsed tasks or otherwise make up for lost time, Lois asked me this: What are you going to do NOW to take care of yourself?

I recognized this as a seminal question in a crisis, and one not every leader would ask. In fact, had she not asked, I might have put my own well-being right back on the line in an effort to demonstrate that I was still the strong contributor I’d always been. What I later came to understand was, leadership takes resilience, and you cannot pour from an empty cup. I also came to realize that not every leader thinks this way. But when a leader does – as Lois did – their teams will follow them to the ends of the earth.

I try very hard to bring this mindset to every interaction I have with peers, and especially the people who report to me. And I haven’t forgotten that my own well-being matters, too.

Thank you, Lois!

Delivering on vision

I’ll never forget the chance Dr. Nancy Andrews, my dean at the time, took on my behalf the day I proposed we build a medical school coaching program. I was at Duke University School of Medicine, and my proposal was a response to another important question. Nancy had asked me this: “If you could do anything you want to do at this institution, what would it be?” Talk about an opportunity to advocate for yourself in real time!

I took a deep breath, and I explained what I imagined a coaching program could mean for the school. When I explained my vision, she listened patiently. She didn’t say a lot about whether my idea was good or not. She didn’t say she thought it was possible or not. Instead, she asked me to take my idea beyond what and to begin to articulate the how. She asked, “is that possible?”

The question was a simple one, but its significance wasn’t lost on me. It required me to put a stake in the ground and make a bold claim for my vision. It required me to think through the concrete details – resources, timelines, the buy-in I would need, and the complexity of building something new.

It was a big question – another question only a true leader will ask. And to be honest, I was terrified. But I thought about it, then I answered with a clear “yes,” and we worked together to make it a reality.

The opportunity Nancy gave me that day, and the way it shaped my career, is something I will always appreciate.

The value of questioning

As you can see, I have been fortunate to have mentors in my life who have taught me so much. And so many other leaders in my life have shared similar wisdom and perspectives. I am grateful to all of them and for all the lessons they have shared.

What stands out most of all is that each of these people in different ways taught me to question. It’s something I have sought to bring to others in my life – students, mentees, colleagues and clients, because it’s questions like these that help professionals create a bespoke life. That’s certainly what these powerful questions gave me.

Why are you doing what you are doing?

What does your heart want most?

What are you going to do NOW to take care of yourself?

Is this possible?

We will explore questions like these in the Bespoke Life Network. And we will be leaning on shared lessons that come from the connections we forge with one another.

Unlock your potential and align with what matters most to you. 

It’s that simple.

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