Inspiring Leaders ask great questions.

During my conversation with Maryann Young from Queen’s Smith School of Business I was reminded of the power of really great questions.

Maryann told me about an inspiring leader who helped her grow into her current position as Associate Director of the Masters of Management Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Smith School of Business. Originally Maryann was hesitant to take on the additional responsibility and didn’t know if she would be the right fit. Her inspiring leader encouraged her to question why she felt she may not be “ready”. He took the time to listen but also asked questions like “What is holding you back?”, and “How might we overcome those challenges?”

Whether you’re having a conversation about career path or problem solving for a project, sometimes it can feel easier to just tell someone what to do. We want to save them the time and agony of figuring it out on their own, but ultimately we do not create an opportunity for learning that way. Being able to provide the support and the appropriate questions to help them arrive at an answer on their own can be far more powerful.

In Maryann’s case, her leader understood that this was a difficult decision for her, he didn’t tell her she “should”, or bully her into making the decision. He simply asked great questions that challenged her to reflect. Eventually Maryann saw what he had seen the entire time and is now happier than ever at work in her new role.

Maryann’s advice to start becoming a more inspirational leader today is:

  1. Let people know that your door is open – give permission to your team to come to your office and be vulnerable and discuss what’s really going on for them.
  2. Stay curious and ask questions – You can get a lot more out of your team when you ask things like: “How can I help?”, “What do you need?”, “What would make this easier for you?”, “What are the challenges”

Inspired by this conversation with Maryann, what is a great question you’ve been asked?

Maryann's Bio

Maryann Young has been a proud member of Smith School of Business at Queen’s University for over 20 years. She currently holds the title of Associate Director of the Master of Management Innovation and Entrepreneurship program, and brings over 6 years of leadership experience working with large teams. She has a strong passion for the power of coaching and the impact that it can have for people facing a number of business and career challenges. She has spent the last 5 years pursuing a number of coaching certifications, including Certified Executive Coach, Certified Career Management Coach, and Associate Certified Coach with the International Coaching Federation. She is also currently completing her Masters in Executive and Organizational Coaching.


Sarah: Hello, Maryann, thank you so much for being here. I am honored and excited to have you on as a guest.

Maryann: My pleasure, Sarah, thanks for having me.

Sarah: So Maryann, you have some incredible experience having been at Queens University for, I believe you told me it was 15 or 20?

Maryann: 20, this is my 20th year, yes. Very proud of that.

Sarah: Yeah, you should be, it’s amazing. And you would’ve seen so many young professionals come through the doors of Smith School of Business at Queens University who want to better themselves to be higher performers, better leaders. And so I have no doubt you have some very interesting stories to share and a unique perspective to shed light on what is the definition of inspirational leadership. So I’d love to kind of start there, when you hear that word, inspirational leadership, what is inspirational leadership to you?

Maryann: Oh gosh, that’s a great question. For me, I’ve been very lucky to have a number of inspirational leaders around me in my time here at Queens. For me, I think it comes down to the ability to be able to support and enhance the performance within your teams. So, fostering confidence and growth, which really leads to individual and team success.

Sarah: And so when you say fostering confidence or building growth, how might someone do that? How does that manifest in the world?

Maryann: Well, for me, as a leader of, I have 10 staff that report to me and I deal with a lot of confidence issues, so I really see it as my job to kind of empower and support and encourage in order to bring out that confidence because with confidence comes so much. And so I really see being an inspirational leader as really tapping into that and pulling out the skill sets and the strengths that each individual brings to the table to allow them to be confident enough to show that skillset.

Sarah: And has there been a time where you’ve done that with a student or someone’s done that for you? And so kind of what happened and what was the result?

Maryann: Sure, tons of times. I mean, as somebody who’s been working here for 20 years, I did start quite young, I was 23 years old when I started here at Smith. And so I’ve had that done to me a number of times, it’s hard sometimes being in business and all that comes and goes with it and you’re trying to do your best and it’s hard. And if you don’t have an inspiring leader to support you in that growth, it can be a very stressful environment to be in. So, it’s so much more than just being there, but you create an environment and a culture by being an inspiring leader and really allowing people to kind of reach their highest potential. And so in my career, I’ve had tons of people who have been able to do that and that sort of gave me an example of how I then needed to show up as a leader as I grew in my career. So it was wonderful examples that I had that then shed into kind of what my leadership style is.

Sarah: And was there an example that comes to mind that may have been a transformative moment? Someone did something and what was that?

Maryann: Yes, absolutely. I mean, I can think of a few examples, but most recently, actually, so I wrote… Most recently I’ve taken on a new position and I didn’t really want to apply for that position. I was really comfortable with where I was, doing my Master’s degree. I have a couple of young children at home, so life is busy enough. And so as this new opportunity presented itself, I’ll say I was scared and fearful of taking on the additional responsibilities and what that could look like. But I was also very intrigued because it sort of allowed me to follow a passion that I’ve been working so hard on. So I was very torn to sort of disrupt what I was doing and what I was really happy in to kind of take on something new. So my Director was so supportive, he’s really learned who I am and how I work and was able to provide me exactly what I needed, which is different than other people.

Maryann: Everybody’s different in terms of what they need from their manager. And he knew that, and he was aware of that. So being a sounding board for me as I sort of navigated that challenge in my mind, should I? Shouldn’t I? What other opportunities are coming through? Who should I speak to? So just having that sounding board was critical. Fast forward a little bit of time, I ultimately made that decision and took on that new role. And I’m just so appreciative to this day that he did take that time because it was a difficult transition for me. And I’m so happy to sort of be where I am now. So that’s a really strong example that sticks out for me.

Sarah: And was there something he said to you that made you want to take the action? When I think about my own experience, it’s like sometimes you may feel you have the support, I feel like I was so lucky to have amazing support from my siblings through my career as pursuing the Olympics, but it wasn’t until my coach really said to me, “I believe you have what it takes.” And having his belief in me really helped me believe in myself. And so I’m curious if there was something he said, or what were you exactly feeling or what did you exactly hear that allowed you to take that leap?

Maryann: Yeah, I think the first thing that stands out is just knowing that he was very open to speaking to me about this. We had built up a relationship, we’ve been working fairly closely together for four or five years so we had built up this relationship and understanding. And so when this issue came up, it was very comfortable for me to go in and know that I could bounce this off and in whatever way, I have no filter, right, just kind of, sort of shed everything that I was feeling and thinking, good or bad. And so knowing that I could do that, the permission if you will, that I had to be able to kind of to go and do that, what I would then say is just the encouragement and support of, “No, I think you could do this, this actually feels like the right move for you,” without pushing me or making me feel like I should go.

Maryann: But just feeling like, “What’s holding you back? Where are the gaps?” Asking those kind of critical questions that allowed me to sort of overcome some of the obstacles that I was faced with. He was even open to different things to allow me to kind of take a look at it, see, test it out, see if that’s something that would work for me. So just that above and beyond understanding that this was a difficult decision for me I think was what I needed, and therefore ultimately led me to feeling confident enough, back to confidence, to kind of pursue this.

Sarah: Yeah, so it’s almost like this… What was his name again?

Maryann: Darren.

Sarah: Darren, okay, so Darren almost fostered this… He was an inspiring leader because he fostered the confidence in you by asking you the right questions that enabled you to see it within yourself, which I think is really powerful because you said he never should-ed me, like, “You should do this.”

Maryann: No, because if he had should-ed me, I might have been like, “Oh no, you don’t want to work with me.” That lack of confidence can kind of come up just when you at least expect it, right? So he was able to approach it in a way that was not offensive or didn’t make me feel like I wasn’t wanted in my role, but also just kind of nurturing and making sure and pushing me a little bit, pushing me out of my comfort zone a bit, because that’s what I needed. I needed him to kind of encourage me and sort of get me through that. And once I got to the other side, it was all for nothing. I became really excited. I kind of saw all the things that he had already seen about this position. It just took me a little bit longer to kind of get there. And change is scary. And so, but it’s a necessary part of growth and development as well. And so just having his support and encouragement, I think not only in that instance, but throughout our time together has been fundamental.

Sarah: Yeah, no, I think that’s really, really wonderful. And if you were to be giving advice to someone else who wants to show up at work tomorrow and be more inspiring, “I want to inspire my teams, I want to be that person,” what is a really tangible individual action you think that they can take? Whether that’s a specific question or a specific act, what would that be?

Maryann: I would say, I’ve done a lot of development as an executive coach and so I’m really leveraging a lot of my coaching techniques with my team. And so what I would say, I might say two things to that, one, let people know that your door is open, right, so if we use my example with Darren, I knew that that was okay. So let people know, give them permission because it can be a really uncomfortable thing to go into somebody’s office and be vulnerable and be authentic to yourself. So if you have permission, if you will, from your leader, that just makes it a huge hurdle just kind of goes away. And then ask questions, that’s the kind of the coaching mindset, how can I help you? What do you need? What would make this easier for you? What are some challenges? So really just, stay curious and ask questions because you actually get a lot more when you sort of take that approach.

Sarah: I think that is two really amazing pieces of advice, especially around that curiosity and questioning piece, because it sounds like that was a big part of your journey of how you were able to foster or your leader was able to foster that confidence and how you were able to get there to take that action was around providing you bumpers of here are the boundaries I think you should play in, but I’m not going to tell you that and just kind of guide you along that direction. So the takeaways here I really, really love around as a leader, make sure you know the door is open… Or you tell your team the door is open and give them permission to keep an open conversation and know that you’re there to genuinely listen to them and then ask, as a leader, really great questions to help people kind of uncover and discover what’s holding you back was a question that you said he mentioned or why you want this.

Maryann: Yeah, it’s really easy to tell, right, it’s really say, “Do this, do this, do this,” but it doesn’t really provide an opportunity for learning and to have the individual kind of think-through-it themselves and maybe come up with an answer themselves. And so being able to empower that within them, I really feel is the role of a leader.

Sarah: Oh, that’s brilliant, I love that. I’m almost leading here with the line, inspiring leaders ask great questions.

Maryann: Love it, perfect. I love it, yeah.

Sarah: That’s you, that’s you that did this, it’s not me.

Maryann: I love it.

Sarah: It’s so, so wonderful. No, this has been really cool. I love hearing all different ways that people can perceive inspiration and how that manifests in everyone’s world. So-

Maryann: Everybody’s different, everybody works different, everybody needs something differently. So yeah, ask questions yourself, figure out what they need and how they’re different from others. And then yeah, asking great questions to kind of get you there has always really served me well.

Sarah: Brilliant, so wonderful. Well, thank you so much for spending time with me today. I really, really appreciate it. And I’m looking forward to sharing this wisdom with everyone else.

Maryann: Oh my pleasure. Well, thank you. I really enjoyed chatting with you and yeah, thanks for having me.

Sarah: Thanks, Maryann.

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