Senior leaders are charged with making critical and timely decisions that will set direction, establish the desired culture and ensure the capacity for operational execution. Their decisions have consequences at the strategic, operational and tactical level and matter today and in the future. Their decisions impact employees, customers and other stakeholders.

Senior leaders are expected to make decisions that are consistent with the mission, vision and values. They are expected to make choices and act in ways that better serve their customers, differentiate the organization from competitors, and develop the leaders who will grow and sustain the organization’s future success.

In order to avoid errors that arise from ignorance, these leaders must explore and judge the opportunities, challenges and choices before them. The volume, complexity and diversity of those opportunities require senior leaders to call upon others to help them find, vet and analyze information. Effective senior leaders generally approach important decisions with curiosity. They seek to know and understand more. They have honed the ability to ask the right questions to learn before they decide.

By observing and interviewing senior leaders for over 25 years, we have concluded that effective senior leaders avoid errors of ignorance by continually asking questions of themselves and of the people who provide them with information, ideas and recommendations. Below are three big questions senior leaders ask, each with several additional questions they might use in their pursuit of the answers.

1. Am I Receiving the Best Information Available?

Do I have systems, practices and people in place that will ensure:

  • I am receiving the good news and the bad news?
  • I am considering information and perspectives from historical, contemporary, complimentary, contradictory, internal and external voices?
  • I have a clear understanding of each opportunity, challenge or choice before me?
  • I have a clear understanding of the information before me?
  • I identified and weighed the potential and indirect consequences of the options (i.e., new problems and non-stakeholder reactions)?
  • Any assumptions, including the presenter’s and my own, have been challenged?

2. Is the Source of My Information Credible?

How do I ensure:

  • The person providing this information is trustworthy?
  • The information he or she is giving me has not been distorted by personal bias, agenda or preference?
  • The positions he or she is recommending are supported and not merely personal opinions?
  • The person providing the information has done his or her own due diligence in vetting the source, analyzing the data and considering the consequences of the recommendations?
  • The presenter has considered and evaluated all options before making recommendations, including choices that challenge or protect the status quo; increase, maintain or decrease risk; or may be popular or unpopular?

3. Do I Fully Understand How Each Option Before Me Will Serve My Organization?

  • In what ways does each option align with our mission, vision and values?
  • In what ways does each option support our strategic direction?
  • Which options are we able to execute, with or without additional resources (fiscal, talent, infrastructure, technology or other)?
  • How will each option serve our customers?
  • How might each option differentiate us from our competitors?
  • How might each option provide opportunities to develop future leaders?
  • How will each option impact all levels of employees, customers and other stakeholders?
  • Have I determined that the level of uncertainty or risk for a chosen option is acceptable?

Like other successful senior leaders, you, too, can avoid the errors of ignorance by learning more before you decide:

  • Be curious. Never assume you have all the answers or the best information. Ask the questions that help you learn and understand what you do not know.
  • Test the credibility of your sources.
  • Confirm how your decisions will fulfill your responsibility as a leader within the context of your organization.

We invite you to comment and send us the questions you always ask before you make an important decision. Tweet us at @TrainingIndustr and @CODAKathy.