How smart leaders answer dumb questions

“This might be a dumb question…”

We’ve heard that before.  Usually, it is uttered by a new-comer.  Someone new to the board, or to the company.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never heard anything dumb after hearing that phrase. A new set of eyes sees something strange, and they have the strength and courage to raise a hand and show their ignorance.

Here’s what I’ve found.  After asking that “dumb” question, a conversation takes place.  And what do you usually find out?  Most in the room really didn’t have a clear understanding of the situation.  The dumb question forced the group to search for the reason – the underlying rationale for a decision or practice. Often, the rationale is hard to find.

One company took this idea to the next level.  Brian O’Kelley of AppNexus, loves dumb questions.

We created an e-mail alias called “dumbquestions@” so that if you have a question that many people might be wondering about, you can send it around and everybody in the company sees it. For example, somebody wrote recently, “Hey, we had a couple of low revenue days. Does anyone know what’s up?” I love having those out in the open, and then we’ll write back that a couple of seasonal things happened, and here’s what’s going on. Hopefully that eases people’s concerns. I like that it’s not anonymous, because it helps me get to know who’s really smart.

Did you notice how he ended that?  He likes to know who asked the “dumb” question, because to him, it signals a person who is anything but dumb.  I urge you to continue reading, because Brian talks about how he hires, and how he built the culture of his company.

Good stuff.

So, here’s to the dumb question!  And those with the smarts (and courage) to ask them. 

Anthony Demangone

Anthony Demangone

Anthony Demangone is executive vice president and chief operating officer at the National Association of Federal Credit Unions (NAFCU). Demangone oversees day-to-day operations and manages the association’s education, membership, ... Web: Details