May 2021 edition: An Ethos for Effective Questioning

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An Ethos for Effective Questioning

This article sets out some personal thoughts in relation to possible approaches to delivering effective questioning and challenge at Trust Board meetings.

When people ask what the best sorts of questions are, and how they are best delivered, it often ends up with some form of template questions that people might use. This piece suggests starting from a different position, from the stance of underpinning values and an ethos which if used as a framework, would allow for effective questions in many Trust settings. Together they provide a toolkit for asking questions to give people confidence in knowing they are making a worthwhile contribution.

My suggestions are based on two main themes:

  • Underpinning Principles

  • Approaches to Questioning

Underpinning principles

1. Hold the Executive to account.

The Board, Directors and Trustees are there to ensure the Executive does the bidding of the Board.

2. The Board decides what and how.

It is for the Board to decide what it wants done, in what way, how it wants progress reported, how it will monitor outcomes, and the structure and oversight it wants to see applied by the Executive. Beyond that, the Board should free up the Executive to act and demonstrate they have the confidence in them to get on and deliver.

3. The Trust comes first.

The motives behind questions must always be in the best interests of the Trust. We are particularly tuned in to pecuniary interests but there can also be issues of loyalty and support. However, there should be no driving force behind questions that is not about the Trust’s interests.

4. Productive interaction.

Questioning should support a productive interaction between Trustees, and between Trustees and the Executive. It must not be negative or destructive but should be a constructive exchange that builds the dialogue essential to sound corporate governance.

5. Not a one-to-one exchange.

Effective challenge is not one person holding forth on their views or two people arguing a point. It is about someone making contributions that acknowledge or sway the perspectives or views of others. This leads to inclusive corporate decision making with breadth and balance and is not discussion being dominated by a small number.

6. Add value or context.

Questioning should add value or context and not just be an opportunity for someone to speak or air their own views. It needs to contribute to the debate and build the discussion as it moves on.

7. Mutual respect, trust, and openness.

These aspects sit at the heart of successful questioning and challenge. When they are in place it leads to a much more productive and open discussion because people feel secure in the environment in which they are contributing.

8. Be strategic.

Challenge should be at a strategic level. Whist sometimes difficult, contributors need to resist the urge to delve into the detail unless it is relevant to the strategic level discussion. It is easy to slip into an absorbing debate on an aspect people like to talk about, but which does not add to the strategic consideration of key issues.

Approaches to questioning 

1. Independence and diversity of thought.

Creative questioning relies on free and diverse thinking within the Board. That is not just diversity on race or gender, but the diversity and breadth of contributions that needs to be encouraged and developed to ensure robust consideration of Trust matters.

2. Be confident to speak.

Effective challenge is not one person holding forth on their views or two people arguing a point. It is about someone making contributions that acknowledge or sway the perspectives or views of others.

Ken Lloyd

Trustees should be confident to speak, knowing that it only needs partial knowledge to ask a full value, pertinent question. This is about having confidence in the knowledge that one has, or even recognising the gaps in that knowledge, as one pursues particular questions.

3. Status and impact.

Give status and impact to the questions in the way they are asked and do not be apologetic for their existence. The way they are delivered is quite important so that they resonate and have a status of their own and a right to be heard at the table.

4. The final answer is not always the first response.

Follow up questioning is often crucial to obtaining the full answer. As a group the Board should not let go of an issue too early.

5. Develop a line of thought.

Trustees may need to be confident in giving others the space to pursue questioning or develop a line of thought, or to give support in developing that point. It can sometimes be that one person’s idea is the germ or provides part of a solution that can be built upon by the rest of the Board.

6. Cement understanding.

Trustees need to be able to take away a clear view on how things stand, and if they are not going well, what is being done about it, and crucially when the issue will be revisited again. In this way they can use questioning to expand on any doubts and cement the understanding of exactly what the position is.

7. Follow your instincts.

If it does not sound, look, read, or feel right, then follow your instincts and pursue the point to a resolution.