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Learn How To Be A Brilliant Boss

Written by: Joanna Stokes, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.


There are many ways you can be a brilliant boss, but in my 25 years of being a leader and now training people to be leaders, there is 1 thing that always tops the list.

Stop telling, start asking.

Without fail, the junior and middle managers in my leadership programs always recognize they don’t ask enough questions of their team and they tell them what to do too often. The impact of asking more questions and listening more to your team is enormous – all of a sudden your team members feel included and empowered to take action themselves and take responsibility for those actions. Bingo! You have more time to focus on your priorities – everyone wins.

So, how do you stop telling and start asking more?

Easy – Talk less and listen more.

Let’s start with listening more

It’s a myth that listening is easy. It takes far more than being silent, nodding occasionally, and then repeating back to someone word for word what they have just said. You can do all of that without really listening properly or understanding what that person was saying.

As Stephen Covey famously says in Habit 5 of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People “seek first to understand, then to be understood” Too often we are listening with the intent of replying with our own opinion and story so we don’t listen because we are too busy formulating our response in our head.

He goes on to explain the 5 levels of listening; ignoring, pretend listening, selective listening, attentive listening, and empathetic listening. Meetings are a great place to watch the first 3 levels of listening.

Ignoring – when you see people texting under the table or even blatantly replying to an email on their laptop (yes, I have seen this many times!).

Pretend listening – people are nodding or making the Uh-huh noises but if you asked them what was being said they wouldn’t be able to tell you as it’s an automatic response and their mind is elsewhere.

Selective listening – this is where you see someone listen when they are interested in the topic, perhaps the agenda item affects their department. But after that, they lose interest and tune out. Watch the people around the table when you are in your next meeting and see if you can identify the different levels of listening – you will be amazed!

Only when you get too empathetic listening do you really start to listen with the intent to understand. You have stopped thinking about yourself and you are focusing solely on the person who is talking.

Now let’s be honest you are not going to be listening at level 5 in every conversation you have, but it’s worth knowing the differences and recognizing when you need to be engaging at a different level.

How do I improve my listening?

Most of us never receive training in how to listen properly. I thought I was a good listener until I trained to be a coach and realized, I was far from good. I am a much better listener now, but I still have to work at it daily to keep my listening villains at bay and ensure I am giving my clients level 5 listening.

To improve your listening skills, you can take one of many tests online which will help you assess your current listening skills. My favorite is Oscar Trimboli’s Deep Listening Quiz. This quiz identifies your listening villains, and those barriers you have that stop you from listening properly. It gives you a full report on how these show up in your listening, and how you can overcome these and become a better listener.

I recommend this quiz to everyone on my programs, we spend some time in the group sharing our villains and how these show up at work. My villain is the Interrupting Listener – always wanting to jump in and give the solution before they have even finished telling me about the problem!

The self-awareness this creates is quite significant and I have seen many light bulb moments as colleagues and peers share their experiences and set themselves actions to improve.

Don’t forget if you listen more, you will learn more.

How to talk less

You will know the adage “you have 2 ears and 1 mouth for a reason so listen twice as much as you talk.” This is good advice, but most people fail to follow it. In the article, How to Supercharge your learning and improvement: The Golden ratio of communication the author sets out some clear tips on how to communicate using the 2:1 ratio. I particularly like the “Ask more questions” tip, which leads me nicely on how to use powerful questions.

Ask more questions.

If you ask more questions of someone and listen to their answers you will learn more about their situation. At work, this could be vital to understanding a problem that needs solving or a situation that needs nipping in the bud. However, the quality of the questions you ask will greatly impact the answers you get.

Asking the right questions.

Aim to ask simple, open questions (what, who, when, and how). Avoid using questions starting with Why as these can come over as slightly aggressive and make your recipient defensive. For example, asking “Why haven’t you solved that yet?” Sounds like you are questioning their ability whereas if you rephrase the question to “What has stopped you from solving that?” it is asking for facts and evidence, it is non-accusatory. This will mean your recipient is more likely to tell you the truth and not feel blamed.

How many times does a team member come to you wanting you to solve their issue or make a decision when really, they could do this for themselves? By asking the right questions you can empower that person to solve the problem or make the decision themselves.

Next time a team member comes to you with a problem, try asking:

  • What would you like to happen?

  • What would be the best outcome for you/the customer/the team?

Then use open questions to help the team member explore how they will make it happen and what help they may need. Some suggestions:

  • Who can help you make that happen?

  • What are the consequences if that happens?

  • What might get in the way?

  • What support do you need from me?

9 times out of 10 the individual will go away empowered with action. They have come up with the solution themselves, they have identified any barriers they may face but also who can help them and best of all you have asked them what support they need from you but chances are once you get to that stage they won’t need any. However, you are showing them you are there for them as their manager.

They go away empowered and accountable, taking responsibility for their actions because they came up with them.

Practice listening more and asking open powerful questions – you will be amazed at what happens with your team.

Follow me on Facebook, LinkedIn, and visit my website for more info!


Joanna Stokes, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Joanna Stokes is transformational leadership and career coach and a trainer and mentor to further education leaders. She has 18 years of experience in Further Education, and the last 8 years as a senior leader in a variety of organizations including the CEO of an adult education charity. She was an Ofsted Inspector for five years. After experiencing the powerful impact coaching had on her career, her mission is to spread the power of coaching across the sector. She coaches education professionals and trains workplace coaches and mentors. She qualified as a personal performance coach in 2020 and is now on a mission to help education professionals create the freedom to live the life they want.



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