Built Intelligence

What can project managers and leaders learn from Larry King? By Susanne Madsen

What can project managers and leaders learn from Larry King? By Susanne Madsen

Larry King, the legendary US television and radio host who passed away at the age of 87, had an unquestionable talent for making his interview subjects the true stars of his programs. He was known for asking short and uncomplicated questions and letting his curiosity guide the conversations.
 
Working in broadcasting as a radio and television host is undoubtedly different to the kind of job that most project managers and leaders get to perform. But a recent interview with Larry King revealed exactly how good he was at building trust and making people open up – something that managers and leaders can and should learn from. 
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Larry King performed 50,000 interviews in his career with people from all walks of life, including world leaders, celebrities and everyday people. He began as a DJ and radio interviewer in Miami in 1957 and went on to have a nightly TV show on CNN for 25 years. 
 
Be curious and ask non-judgmental questions

In Larry King’s own words his success came down to his ability to be in the present moment and to not worry about the next question he would ask. He simply let his curiosity for the person he was interviewing guide him. His endless curiosity was a trait he developed as a child when he realised that it was helping him to learn. He said that if you love what you do and trust yourself then you’re able to relax and be in the present moment. You have to let your passion and your curiosity work for you even if that means taking a risk. If you’re too rigid and try to follow a script, you will lose the ability to use your intuition and follow the cues that come up in a conversation. 
 
On asking questions, King said that we have to ask them without being judgmental. If we want to learn and get a person to open up, then we simply have to follow our curiosity, be sincere in our interest for the other person and put ourselves in their shoes. The questions themselves don’t have to be complicated – sometimes the simple ones are the most powerful. For instance “what happened?” But it’s surprising how many people don’t ask enough questions and therefore don’t learn. Try to go through your day and notice how many people are telling instead of asking. Larry King reminded us that no one ever learnt anything from telling. 
 
Walk in the shoes of your stakeholder

There are many situations from everyday project-life where you might be in need of asking better questions, being curious and putting yourself in the other person's shoes – for instance when you want to:

  • Build a strong working relationship with a stakeholder
  • Resolve an issue or a conflict
  • Gather requirements from a client or a user
  • Motivate and coach a team member

Projects are full of stakeholders, but as project managers we don't necessarily have a close and collaborative relationship with them. Perhaps some of them are too senior for us to feel that we can comfortably approach them. Or perhaps they come across as critical towards the projects or are not forthcoming because they are busy with other priorities. The result is that we often hold ourselves back approaching them, which can lead to a distant or formal relationship. The only way to build a close working relationship with someone is to spend time with them – be curious, ask non-judgmental questions and try to walk in their shoes. 
 
Most stakeholders will be happy to spend a bit of time with you if they feel that it benefits them too. How can you make sure that a one-to-one meeting benefits the stakeholders too? By giving them your full attention, listening intently and by addressing their concerns. Some of the simple, yet powerful questions you might ask could be: 

  • What are your thoughts about the project?
  • What would you like the outcomes to be?
  • Which concerns do you have?
  • How would you like me to communicate with you?
  • How can we make best use of your contributions?
  • What else?

But it’s not enough to ask great questions. Listening is as important. When you meet with someone, try to listen at the highest possible level, which we could call global listening. This is where you have emptied your own mind and are no longer listening to your own internal dialogue or trying to figure out what to say next. Not only are you fully focused on the person you are speaking with, you are also using your intuition to pick up cues and allowing your curiosity to guide the conversation. That’s what Larry King was so good at.
 
Motivate and coach a team member

In a similar way to how you would engage a stakeholder with curiosity and great questions, there is a need to unpack situations and build better working relationships with team members. Perhaps you are conscious that some team members know more about a topic than you do. Or the other way around: perhaps they are novices and you feel you need to instruct them. In both cases there is an inequality in the relationship, which can easily create barriers and hinder trust. 
 
The challenge for many project managers is to be non-judgmental and to put their assumptions aside – especially if they are trying to get to the bottom of an issue. If you think about it, we often enter into a conversation with pre-conceived ideas about what the other person does/does not know, what they can/cannot do, and what they have/have not done. If we follow Larry King’s example we need to put our curiosity-hat on and simply enquire with an open mind and an open heart. Try some of the following questions to open up a conversation and trying to resolve an issue:

  • ​What happened?
  • Tell me about the issue
  • Can you explain that in more detail?
  • What do you think needs to happen?
  • What’s the ultimate objective?
  • What’s the real challenge here?
  • How have you tried to improve it?
  • What are the pros and cons of each option?
  • How can I help?

If you have a situation where you’re speaking to a subject matter expert, and would like to know more about the contents of a specific piece of work, try to ask:

  • Can you talk me through the feature we’re trying to build?
  • What makes it important?
  • What makes it challenging?
  • What do we need to watch out for in getting it right?
  • What is the most complex aspect for you?
  • What are the risks associated with this?
  • In the worst-case scenario, how long will it take you?
  • And in the best-case scenario?
  • Who can help?
  • How shall we keep each other updated?

But perhaps you neither wish to resolve an issue, nor extract information about a task from a subject matter expert. Perhaps you would simply like to get to know a team member better and build a stronger working relationship with them. In that case experiment with some of these questions:

  • What’s going on at the moment?
  • How are you feeling?
  • What concerns do you have?
  • How stretched do you feel at the moment?
  • What support to you need?
  • How can we better use your strengths?
  • How often would you like us to check in with each other?
  • What are your thoughts on how we could work more effectively?
  • What else?

 Summary

With over 50,000 interviews, Larry King knew how to make a person open up during a conversation. His advice was that we ask open, non-judgmental questions and that we let our curiosity and interest for the other person steer the conversation. The trick is to be fully present and listen at the highest possible level. By doing so, the person you’re speaking to opens up and you create the opportunity to learn something new. Project managers and leaders can make use of his advice in most of the interactions they have – from building trust with a stakeholder and resolving issues to liaising with a subject matter expert and motivating a team member. 

About the author
Susanne Madsen is an internationally recognised project leadership coach, trainer and facilitator. She is the author of The Power of Project Leadership (now in 2nd edition) and The Project Management Coaching Workbook. You can read more about Susanne's coaching, training and consulting services on www.susannemadsen.com
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