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Lessons From the Boat, Part V

The power of good questions

Every now and then in a sailboat race, the spinnaker set doesn’t go as planned. Ideally, a race crew will have this colorful, downwind sail hoisted and filled as the transom passes the upwind turning buoy. But sometimes the sail goes up slowly or, worse, goes up and fills in a beautiful hourglass shape with a twist in the middle.

The same thing happens to everyone sooner or later, whether afloat or at work, launching a new product, sending out a press release or installing new machinery on the production line.

In the short term, you need to fix the problem, and either your team is prepared to respond quickly or you, as the leader, will determine what steps to take. But in the longer term, the questions you ask and the way you ask them can either create a powerful learning opportunity or generate a lot of finger-pointing.

As the captain during that failed spinnaker set, did I jump up, stamp my feet on the deck and yell, “What the bleep!? Which of you idiots messed up this time?” Or did I wait until the race ended and say to the team, “I know all of us would like a do-over on that spinnaker set — what do you think happened, and how can we work together to get it right consistently?”

The first approach might feel good for a split second of blowing off steam, but the second — gathering information, producing clarity without judgment and inviting collaborative problem-solving — is more likely to make a difference in the next race and carry the team forward intact.

As leaders, we set the tone, which often determines the result from the get-go. Will we focus on finding someone to blame, or focus on learning and improving for the common good? Accountability need not go out the window, but if blame is your focus, it will become the company conversation going forward.

Words that disarm

The words you choose when asking a question can create a culture of candor or breed one of reaction and defensiveness. Matt Gruhn, president of Marine Retailers Association of the Americas, suggests that it’s leadership’s responsibility to support the team. He’s learned language from MRAA member development manager Nikki Duffney, who always asks MRAA members, “What can I do to support you?”

Borrowing that question and using it in conversations with staff creates an opening in which Gruhn can learn about what his team needs from him, personally or structurally. At the same time, team members can ask for support, which may result in individual support or may point to a systemic issue that he should address across the organization.

“What can we do to help you with your issue?” is the question the team at the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation asks consumers again and again, according to president Frank Peterson. “Most of the time, the issue is with a license or registering a boat,” Peterson says. “But even when we learn it’s not our problem, we have the chance to help customers solve their issue anyway.”

The group often helps the consumer work with a relevant state agency and turn a reported problem into an experience in line with RBFF’s mission: to keep people fishing.

Open- and closed-end questions

As a leadership coach, I work with a mentor-coach named Elias Scultori. We talk about questions all the time, especially open-ended questions that can’t be answered with a yes or a no. He recently told me: “Some of my favorite questions begin with the word ‘how’ and ‘what’ because these types of questions give the person more space to think, to own their answer and invest themselves in the solution.”

Gruhn’s standby question at the MRAA — “What can we do to help or support you?” — fits this description. It’s a straightforward question that allows the customer to get to the heart of the matter.

Thom Dammrich, president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association, also describes a way leaders can put the power of an open-ended question to work every day. “When staff come to me for a decision,” he says, “I ask what they think we should do.”

It’s a simple thing to do — Dammrich admits it remains an area of growth for him as a leader — and it gives the person the chance to own the decision, think through a problem and come up with a logical recommendation.

As leaders, we need information, and questions are usually the best way to get it. Sometimes that means asking closed-end questions with yes or no answers, which can be vital in clarifying a situation — for example, “Do you have the tools you need to finish the project by Friday?” or “Did the deposit check clear?”

Often, we can gather better-quality information with questions that invite a more thoughtful response. Gruhn says his team, led by the examples that MRAA vice president Liz Walz has demonstrated, spends most of its time asking questions and learning from association members, including the use of formal education surveys. “We ask dealers, what things are on your mind? What educational opportunities would you find valuable? What areas are you struggling in?” he says.

Notice that these questions don’t focus on the courses or products that the MRAA team has already conceived or produced. Instead, they reinforce the value of established ideas or generate new ideas. Rather than trying to guess the answer to a problem or an opportunity, the MRAA defaults to asking for the insight of its members and the industry at large. The approach has benefitted the organization and the industry in many ways.

Bob Denison, president of Denison Yachting, gives an example of what can be answered as a yes-or-no evaluation question, one that his team asks a buyer or a seller after a sale is complete: “We ask, ‘If you had to do it over, would you choose us again?’ That gives them the freedom to answer the question and say what we might’ve done wrong or right.”

When not to ask a question

Sometimes it’s appropriate for the leader, be it Dammrich or a boat captain, to dispense with questions, provide the answer and do it quickly. On a boat, safety and a successful mission may depend on the leader sizing up things fast and giving a clear command. When you as a leader decide to issue a directive — especially if you are the type who normally asks questions of your team — they will hear the difference in your words, and they’ll respond.

In the example of the twisted spinnaker, if it’s too windy or the nylon sail is too badly twisted, I’ll make a call. “Pete, drop the spinnaker on the deck and sort it out.” We’ll sail slowly for the next minute or so while our team untwists the sail, but I’ve made the decision that it’s better to lose speed for a definite amount of time than to keep struggling with the tangled sail for an indefinite period. Soon the problem will be behind us.

For you, it may be time to stop negotiating and accept a deal that’s been offered. Or to halt production and fix the problem with the product. You’ve been asking open-ended questions every day, and your team has been exploring what’s best for the company. Now you’ve made the tough decision. Acknowledging all of the study and analysis of your team, let them know in a clear, declarative statement that you’ve made the decision, and that it’s time to act and move on.

Language is a difference-maker. Practice and use it as the powerful tool it can be.

John Burnham

John Burnham

John Burnham is a leadership coach, independent writer and editor. He is former editor of Sailing World, Cruising World,, YachtWorld and Boat Trader. As a competitive sailor, he has led teams to world and national titles in the International One-Design, Shields and other classes, winning the 2016 Shields Nationals. If you’d like to share leadership lessons from your boat that align with your leadership in business, or have any other comments, email

This article originally appeared in the December 2018 issue.



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