Leading a business is hard. Leading anything, for that matter, is especially complicated right now. None of us have ever been through a global pandemic quite like this, and its affects have created remarkable challenges. One of those challenges is trying to navigate your business, or team, or family through what can only be described as very uncertain times.
Here’s the thing: Starting a business–or anything really–is full of uncertainty. You don’t know, when you start, where you’ll end up. You have an idea, and hopefully you have a plan, but there are so many unforeseen circumstances and variables that come into play that it would be foolish to think you have all the answers.
That can be a difficult realization for leaders who are accustomed to being responsible for having it all figured out. It’s an important one, however, because it can directly affect whether your business becomes more than just an idea.
Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve tackled every big new problem the same way: by starting off with two questions. I used this technique at Microsoft, and I still use it today… Here they are: Who has dealt with this problem well? And what can we learn from them?
I think it’s reasonable to acknowledge that Bill Gates has figured some stuff out. The company he started, Microsoft, is one of the three most valuable in the world. His foundation has donated billions towards public health research, including eradicating Polio and funding vaccines for Covid-19. You don’t typically think of him as someone who has to look elsewhere for answers, but he does. More importantly, he’s not afraid to say that he does.
Which is maybe the biggest indicator of the quality of someone’s leadership–their willingness to ask those two questions. Here’s why I think they are so powerful:
First, it requires you to acknowledge that you don’t have it all figured out. That’s okay, because let’s be honest, you don’t. Regardless of what you are building, there’s a pretty good chance someone else has information that would be helpful to you. There’s a good chance that someone else has already had success in that area, and the smartest thing you can do is figure out who they are.
Second, ask yourself what they’ve done that you can learn from. This is sometimes even harder for a leader, but it’s even more important because it gives you the opportunity to take the best of what has already been done and improve on it. Instead of inventing something, you can devote your resources to innovating and refining what has already worked and make it your own.
Mostly, however, making it a habit to ask those two questions will just make you a better leader. That’s because the two most important aspects of leadership are setting the direction and influencing people to work in that direction. Those two questions make you better at both since it gives you a better sense of which direction will give you the best chance of success, and the information and experience you need to get there.