The Answer Is In The Question

One of the life lessons I learned early in my career as an executive coach is the answer is in the question. By asking better questions, we enable others to come to their own resolutions. The truth is, only when someone deeply understands their issue will they take action.

Most of us in business are problem solvers, and the answer to someone else’s problem or challenge often seems obvious, so we rush in with advice without stopping and asking questions. What I have learned, and continue to be reminded of daily, is that by asking more poignant questions, the resulting answer may not only be better, but it may also be different than what we perceived as evident before we asked.

When we ask the better question, we offer the other person the gift of self-exploration, and in return, we may have the privilege of witnessing a transformation.

You Say Tomato

In my work as an executive life coach, I am constantly reminded that even though we are all part of the human species with many common characteristics, we see the world differently.

We expect this to be so when we travel internationally or interact with people of differing ethnic, cultural, and national backgrounds. Most of us have a heightened awareness of our differences in these situations. We realize we need to pause, think about the norms of the other person, think about what we have learned about their culture, and modify our interaction and behavior accordingly. 

An easy example is how we exchange business cards. In the U.S., when we even use business cards, we toss them on the table. In Japan, a business card is “presented”; held in two hands and a formal exchange.

Yet, when dealing with people who speak our same language, we often forget to pause. We forget that just because we speak the same language, may even come from the same community, we see the world differently. 

The closer our relationship with the other person, the more likely we will forget. We carry on and behave in a manner that comes naturally to us, and when it works, it works. And when it doesn’t, we leave a wake. Sometimes we recognize the wake we are leaving and work to repair it; sometimes, we don’t see it.

When we are in a leadership position and leave a wake, it is rarely brought to our attention directly. Instead, we learn about our impact on the actions and behaviors of others. Often we don’t connect the dots and see that our wake caused the behavior in others we don’t want to see.

So, what to do? Here are the questions I am asking myself:

  • How do I slow down to have this heightened awareness in all conversations?
  • Once I notice the conversation requires special attention, like the business card exchange, what do I already know, and what do I need to learn about the other person that will help me handle my delivery in a way that lands as intended?
  • When have I left a wake, what do I need to do to clean it up?

Walk? Run? Fly? Or Even Crawl…

It is sometimes hard to know when to walk, run, fly or even crawl. In our fast-paced world, we strivers tend to default to running. 

My sense is that different circumstances require different speeds, and most of the time, I find it is best to let things unfold at their own pace. 

When I remember to pause BEFORE taking action, I ask myself these questions to determine which pace makes the most sense:

  • If I am feeling a sense of urgency, what is driving it?
  • What will happen if I let others drive the pace rather than me?
  • If I slow down my pace, what benefits or costs will result?
  • If I speed up my pace, what benefits or costs will result?
  • What will happen if I choose to observe rather than act for some time?

Optimize vs. Maximize

When I googled optimize vs maximize, I found this comparison “Maximize is about raw return, about getting maximum revenues and profits. Optimize is about ROI—seeking results relative to the investment required.

So why would we ever choose to maximize? Yet some of us default to the maximize choice without even thinking about the difference.

  • How often do we notice something, point it out, and then regret it later, wishing we had kept quiet? 
  • How often do we wait for more or better information and miss an opportunity?

There is both a time factor and a human factor to optimizing ROI. We often wait too long and strive for that final 5%, hoping to have perfect info upon which to base our decision. 

Or, instead of building up the confidence of the person doing the job, we ask for one more change, one more fix, and lose the opportunity to show appreciation for what the person has already accomplished.

In our quest for excellence, we sometimes forget that perfection and excellence are not the same, that excellence can be knowing what to accept as good enough and what to overlook.

Here’s an idea.

Today, instead of looking around and noticing what is missing, what if:

  • You look instead for what is right?
  • You see a critical item that is working and give someone specific, positive feedback?
  • You decide to overlook something that may be good enough given its relative importance, even if it isn’t exactly what you wanted?

Sometimes, It Really Is That Simple

In this complex world we live in, we sometimes ignore the obvious. Today’s technology tools enable us to test and analyze just about anything.

While these tools have led to innovation and life-saving discoveries, I have begun to wonder if the complexity of our society is also leading us to miss the simple answers. Are we missing the obvious along the way to finding a solution?

The following experience happened a while back, and I often use it to remind myself to pause and look first for a simple answer, even when it may not seem obvious.

My internet service was continually cutting out. It would go down for a few minutes, sometimes an hour or so, and would always come back on its own. This situation continued for months. I called for service many times, and each time, the provider sent a new technician to search for the source of the problem and fix it. They replaced modems, replaced wires, and genuinely tried to fix it. 

I became convinced the problem must be with the wiring in the building, so I hired an independent company who came out and checked the internal wiring. Every expert, and there were many, said it should be working. But it wasn’t. 

Finally, I called a technician whose name I had kept because he had been particularly helpful in the past. I told him the whole story, and he sent his supervisor out. The supervisor asked a few questions, listened to my story, and solved the problem in 5 minutes. 

How did he do it?

The answer sounds like one of those brain teasers. Actually, I guess it was. What he did was simple. He asked a few questions, listened to my answers, and since everyone else had looked for a complex problem, he began by looking for a simple one. It turned out he was on the right path. There was a loose wire where the system attached to the building. He tightened the wire, and I have not had a problem since!

My takeaway from this…

When something isn’t working, pause. Then ask questions, listen carefully to the answers, and begin by looking for a simple rather than a complex cause and solution.

Is It Capacity Or Is It Making Choices?

As an Executive Life Coach for CEOs, I’ve seen several common traits in those who have successfully grown their businesses. I’ve told stories in the past about the importance of having a vision, having the right people, and having strong execution. Another more subtle characteristic shared by successful leaders, they seem to have an incredible “capacity.”

Webster defines capacity as:

  • the potential or suitability for holding, storing, or accommodating 
  • an individual’s mental or physical ability
  • the faculty or potential for treating, experiencing, or appreciating
  • the facility or power to produce, perform or deploy: maximum output

It’s this facility for maximum output to which I am referring, the ability to take on more, handle more stress, be present regardless of outside circumstances, or simply do more. It’s more than ability, it’s, well, capacity.

And, here’s what I observe. While it appears that these leaders can simply handle more and do more than others, they also can choose. To make a choice and accept that when they choose, they may disappoint someone. And they allow themselves to be okay with that.


Set Boundaries

As we come to realize that these “interesting times” are likely to be with us for some time, we are also beginning to accept that we must find ways to adapt.

While the form that adapt and accept takes will be different for each of us, one thing is true for all of us; we must focus on what we can control, be mindful of determining what that is, and set boundaries.

When I said this to a client recently, he asked me what I meant by boundaries, here is my reply.

For those who see ourselves as servant leaders, especially those who are people pleasers, setting boundaries begins with putting ourselves first. It is only by “putting our oxygen mask on first” and following three key steps that we can be in service to others.  

In today’s world, this begins first with setting aside “me” time. Me time can include exercise, meditation, watching TV, whatever works for us to relax and recharge.

Next, it’s making time for thinking and planning, “library time” as a client of mine liked to call it. Focused thinking time is essential for identifying the things we can control and staying focused.

Finally, it’s about calendar management. We can only accomplish the first two steps if we do this one. Our schedules must have boundaries. If we are fortunate to have an assistant, we can ask them to be the gatekeeper. And, calendar management apps (I use Calendly) can be equally useful. These apps have advanced settings that allow you to set buffers between meetings, a maximum number of meetings a day, etc. Set this for yourself so that you can be fully present and productive throughout the day.

If you are looking to grow or get unstuck and cut the time to action to six months or less, there is no better time than now to contact me.

Oops, I Was Thinking Out Loud

How often have we said this to ourselves and discovered unintended consequences? As leaders, we know that others are always watching what we do and listening and reacting to what we say. And, when we are with our office staff, in the factory or the field, most of us are conscious of what we say and how we show up.

I wonder though, if we have this same awareness as leaders when we are with our leadership team. Or, for that matter, when we, as members of the leadership team, are with our bosses and our colleagues. You may be thinking (silently?) so, are you saying I want to be aware of what I am saying all the time? Yikes!!

My sense is the answer is yes. When we think out loud, sometimes we create expectations, alarm, or even actions that we did not intend. Recently, one of my clients shared this story: “I was sitting in my office with my VP of Operations, I was thinking out loud, wondering what we needed to do next to get to the growth goals I have. I was going on and on about my frustrations and concerns. The next day, he came back to my office and asked me if I was planning to sell the company. He apparently had gone home and thought about what I had said all night.

In my own experience, when I have the presence to say, “May I think out loud for a moment?” or “Can I just vent for a moment?” that frames the conversation. And sometimes, this pausing reminds me that it is best to ‘zip it.’

What has been your experience?

Let’s work together. You can learn more about my leadership coaching and peer advisory boards here. 

Are You a Prey Dog?

I had an interesting conversation the other day with one of my clients. He was comparing drive in humans to the prey drive his dogs have. Not being a dog owner, I hadn’t heard this term before. He explained that prey drive is exactly what the words describe, a drive to go after prey. And, a large part of dog training is around managing their prey drive.

It’s this drive that causes some dogs to run after anything and everything and sometimes bring it home dead. According to dog trainers, the stronger the prey drive in a breed, the more critical it is to train your dog to have what they call “a strong recall”- coming when called.

You are probably wondering by now, where is she going with this?

Bringing it back to humans, the discussion was about the human prey instinct. For those of us who are driven to succeed, what are we doing to manage our prey dog-like instincts so that we aren’t always running after anything and everything?

  • When we achieve the goals we set for the quarter, are we off and running after the next period goals without pausing and enjoying the prey we caught?
  • On a beautiful weekend day, are we focused on getting things done instead of enjoying the day?
  • What are we doing to develop a strong recall, so we enjoy the ride, while are taking it?

Elisa K Spain


Friction slows things down and makes motion difficult — it’s basic physics. We also know less friction eases movement and increases speed. When things are faster and easier to use, commerce happens.

And, when friction is present, movement slows or worse yet, simply stops.

We see this all the time with technology adoption. Have you found yourself abandoning a website, because you forgot your password and the reset didn’t work? Or the website was slow and you were busy? Or, the app on your phone crashed? Or? Or? Or?

Recently a friend abandoned attending a show with us because try as she might she couldn’t get into the website to buy a ticket. I have been thinking about friction ever since.

Wondering what each of us may be inadvertently doing to create friction for our customers, or even for ourselves? None of us sets out to create friction and yet it happens all the time.

As the economy tightens, perhaps now is the time to hunt down friction everywhere it occurs – with customers, employees, vendors – and seek to eliminate it, so that we can maintain or grow our slice of a perhaps more challenging pie.

Elisa K Spain

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