As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Brian Glibkowski, PhD.
Dr. Brian Glibkowski, known as Dr. G, is passionate about the role of questions and answers in business and society. His research on the six WH-questions (what, why, how, when, where, who) as a common framework for academics and practitioners to communicate and make decisions was recognized by the Association of Human Resource Development as one of ten articles that will shape the 21st century. He published academic research that examined how the top golf-instructors in the world provide answers. The research resulted in a framework called Answer Intelligence (AQ)™ — the ability to provide elevated answers. Dr. G is author of the book Answer Intelligence: Raise Your AQ (April 2021). He is an Associate Professor of Management, North Central College, Naperville, IL and CEO of Semplar Science, the company established to commercialize his research.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
In academia it is said that you tend to research things you are not good at. Fortunate for my research interests, I had a lot of potential avenues to explore. Kidding aside (sort of), my biggest deficiency was my ability to communicate to others. Before I got my PhD, I was working as a junior person in a company. I had a serious discussion with my boss where he suggested they hire a communication coach for me. I could string sentences together, tell jokes, and otherwise make a favorable impression on others. But I was always very analytical and in my own head, and others found it difficult to follow my thinking.
Once a Management professor, I studied communication, focusing upon questions at first. As a society, the emphasis is upon questions. Einstein said if he had 1 hour to solve a problem, he would spend 55 minutes trying to identify the right question. Going back to grade school the focus is upon the six WH-questions (why, what, when, where, who, how). As obvious as it may seem, after studying questions, I started to examine the answer side of the communication equation. Like running into an invisible wall, I was stopped in my tracks by a simple observation. Specifically, we know there are six question types, but we have no idea how many answer types there are. The best way to ensure you will miss the bullseye is if there is no target to aim at. This was a big problem, if you believed as I did that answers provide influence.
I focused my attention upon remedying this gap by studying expert communicators. The result was the discovery of Answer Intelligence (AQ)™, the ability to provide elevated answers to important questions.For the first time, a typology of six answers (story, metaphor, theory, concept, procedure, action) was identified in a new science of answers. AQ is more than a list of answers, AQ holds 5 AQ practices that anyone can emulate. I wrote my book Answer Intelligence: Raise Your AQ that was released April 2021.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
As a junior professor fresh out of my doctoral program, I was steeped in theory, cause-and-effect relationships between concepts that explain how attitudes and behaviors worked in business. For example, I could discuss a theory of mentoring:
(Career Support + Social Support + Role Modeling) 🡪 Mentee Career Satisfaction
I would be asked how-questions, such as “How does a mentor provide social support?” I gave half-hearted answers. The undergraduate students wanted a practical textbook that would discuss in detail how social support could be provided with an open-door policy. I never assigned a textbook.
The undergraduate students wanted a procedure and actions to follow. Instead, I assigned them dense academic articles (written for PhDs) that avoided practical answers. I was focused upon theory emphasized in these academic articles, and I did not concern myself with practical implementation of these theories.
More accurately, I did not believe practical answers were important. I cringe now admitting my belief, but it was true. I would quote Kurt Lewin, the founder of social psychology, who said, “there was nothing as practical as a good theory.” In fairness to Kurt Lewin, he was very practical, but nonetheless I would lean into the quote (as written), in attempt to allow the full weight of the quote to push the class toward believing theory was practical.
One class, after I delivered the quote, I turned my back to the class, only to turn around abruptly and unexpectedly to the class where I was greeted by wide smiles that accompanied a nearly inaudible laughter (meant to be hidden from me). Apparently, I was the butt of the joke. My conflation of theory and practice was funny to my students, but also tragic because I did not immediately course correct based upon the nonverbal feedback — make the class more practical.
It was not until two years later that I really understood the error of my ways. During the AQ research, my colleagues and I interviewed the top golf instructors in the world (as rated by Golf Digest and Golf Magazine). Not surprisingly, the golf instructors were very practical, focusing upon procedures and actions associated with the golf swing. Additionally, the golf instructors were good at all six of the answer types. From this research I appreciated practical answers and developed a deeper belief expertise was more than theory. I challenged myself to communicate each topic in terms of six answer types. For example, if the topic were leadership, I would identify the key concepts and theory, as I had done before. But I would also identify procedure and actions to lead during a meeting, provide a performance evaluation, or navigate a town hall meeting. Although I was always a natural storyteller, after AQ I systematically had stories of leadership at the ready and metaphors as well.
The lesson for everyone is that effective communication involves providing all six answer types. I referred to these communicators as Renaissance communicators, capable of providing answers that explain and predict (theory + concept), emotionally connect (story + metaphor), and achieve results (procedure + action).
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Most academic business articles are cited less than a handful of times and the diffusion of innovation is invisible to the naked eye as it makes its way into real world of business (if the diffusion happens at all). Thus, it is very difficult for the average business professor to see if their research is making a difference to managers and employees.
I wanted to bridge the gap from academia to business by sharing my research directly to a business audience. Branching outside of academic journals, I presented AQ at TEDxGeorgiaTech. Then I endeavored to write a about AQ for business professionals. During the book writing process, when doubt came in, I was eternally grateful for Mike Soenke, retired SVP and CFO of McDonald’s USA, who told me, “I know I would have been a better leader with Answer Intelligence.” This quote propelled me forward and gave me belief that that a professional audience could benefit from the book. This quote now graces the cover of the book.
As I developed the AQ framework, I came to realize that quotes (like Mike’s) are powerful examples of communicating a concept-answer (in AQ terms). Specifically, underlying a quote is a key concept. Mike’s quote illustrated that answers provide influence, a central component of effective leadership. If my book could help leaders become better influencers, it had potential to help any business professional.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
My company Semplar Science is designed to commercialize my research. At the heart of the AQ research is the idea that anyone can provide elevated answers to important questions. Answers are the coin of the realm (any realm). In an interview, if you provide the best answers, you get the job. You go to the physicians for answers to medical questions. When you deliver a presentation, your goal is to stimulate key questions from the decision maker, and when those questions are asked you win when you provide compelling answers.
As my research unfolded, it was obvious that answers were important, but they have long been overlooked in terms of capturing the business worlds imagination and critical examination. My goal is to introduce a new science of answers to the business world (and beyond) and to make AQ the #1 communication framework in the world.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
It has been said that next to language itself the defining attribute that makes us human is our ability to story the world. Thus, it is tempting, and appropriate to answer your question with a story. However, as an academic, theory is the answer type that I gravitate to the most when times are uncertain. I want to answer your question with a theory.
As I was turning my research into a business, I was guided by the diffusion of innovation theory developed by Professor Everett Rodgers in 1962. This theory laid out a bell-shaped curve that held early adopters were those that wanted to innovate, book ended at the other end by laggards. In consumer behavior this bell curve has played out many times including the first adopters of the original iPhone (the innovators were the early adopters who had to have the latest gadget) and eventually everyone’s techno-phobic relative (the laggard) bought an iPhone.
Focusing on answers is an innovation hiding in plain sight. But, nonetheless it is still an innovation. At each turn in my business to bring AQ to the world, the diffusion of innovation theory provides me guidance. For example, my go-to-market strategy is focused on professional service firms (consultants, coaches, and trainers) that want to be innovators, bringing the latest and greatest to their clients. Along the way, opinion leaders, the early majority, late majority, and eventually the laggards can adopt AQ.
By keeping theory alive in my decision making my team and I have a compass that will guide us toward our destination when times are challenging.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Yes and no I considered giving up. Yes, we all have doubts, even after big successes. For example, after my book was submitted to the publisher, I felt the doubt of moving on to other challenges. For example, I had to develop AQ products that could be used by business professionals. Yes, I did develop these products, but every new challenge can seem overwhelming.
On the other hand, I never really considered giving up. I have never given up, because I had all six AQ answer types to surround me and lift me up when I was in doubt. Let me explain.
For example, I’ve already mentioned Everett Rodgers diffusion of innovation theory. Another theory I used is goal setting theory, to focus on breaking something large into manageable pieces. I had a portfolio of metaphors that I drew from. For example, Steve Jobs said, “the dots always connect.” This quote got me through many entrepreneurial moments where opportunities unfold in chaotic and random ways that only make sense after the fact. I developed 5 High AQ practices (procedures in AQ terms) that anyone could use to elevate their AQ.
I had a touchstone story that inspired me. As AQ was being developed, I experimented with providing all six answers types. I was doing consulting. I had a meeting with a CEO, and I brought in a third party technology vendor. In AQ terms “partnership” was a key concept. I wanted to express partnership as a metaphor to make an emotional connection with the CEO. I found a metaphor on the internet of a three-legged stool I delivered to the CEO, “If all three of us don’t work together, it will be like a leg on a three-legged stool that comes crashing down when one leg is taken away.” I bit my tongue, unsure if the internet scrapped metaphor made me sound like a hack. Instead, I found out 1 week later the metaphor worked, when the CEO repeated the metaphor back to me. Success! The light bulb went off, AQ was real. More profoundly, upon self -reflection the metaphor worked because all of the other 5 answers I provided to the CEO were solid. For example, the partnership (concept) was tied to a business strategy (theory). I shared case studies (stories) where the technology partner was effective. Finally, we had a clear plan (procedure) which outlined critical success factors (actions).
When you focus on developing all six answers you are propelled forward. A weakness in any given answer type is buttressed by the other answer types. Feed yourself answers in work and life and you will have the confidence to go after your dreams.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
The leader needs to provide all six answers. Perhaps you are picking up on a consistent theme? In my book, Paul Quaranto, CEO, Boston Mutual Life Insurance, discussed Brand AQ. In his estimation, a strong brand is one that provides all six answers. Too often, a brand is limited to only stories. Although brand stories are important, he believes all six answers in combination are key to realizing a brand.
Like many insurance companies, Boston Mutual’s brand is centered around family. But, unlike most of their competitors, Family is rooted in a very specific and meaningful concept (an AQ answer type). Specifically, Boston Mutual is a strong family, modeled after social science research into families that survived the Great Depression. The families that survived the Great Depression had three attributes; they were flexible, cohesive and communicated well. The strong family then becomes an operational target for procedures and actions that each business function implements against. For example, from a customer service perspective, procedures should be flexible, cohesive, and communicated well. So on and so forth, Boston Mutual’ s brand reflects all six answer types. These answers sustained employees, partners, and customers during the Covid pandemic.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Answer with style (High AQ practice 4) holds there are different answer styles that appeal to distinct goals. The relational answer style focuses upon providing stories and metaphors to make an emotional connection. You will probably recognize stories as being important, but most do not understand the subtleties of stories. For example, as a leader you want to have key stories with multiple versions (short, medium, long) to be told depending on the amount of time you have to tell the stories. Also, a long version may be told first, but as the story is retold it tends to be best to use the short story to reinforce an important theme.
In contrast to stories, metaphors are often overlooked. An advantage of metaphors is that they are more easily retold and take less skill. This is important if the leader wants others to share the metaphors.
The thoughtful leader will develop a portfolio of stories and metaphors to inspire and keep the team engaged.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
First, anticipate questions and be ready wit the right answers. This gets at planning for answers prior to a conversation. Second, as the bad news is delivered in the live conversation, effective leader will respond by answering the specific questions as asked. AQ holds that why-questions are answered with a theory or story. What-questions are answered with a concept or metaphor. Finally, how-questions are answered with a procedure or action.
For example, let’s assume your run a start-up and revenues are down and layoffs are going to occur. You can start by setting the stage for the discussion. In AQ terms, every conversation has a topic that is focus of the conversation.
You: “I’m here to discuss layoffs that are going to occur.”
Team member: “Why are layoffs occurring?”
You: [Tell a story about what is wrong in the business].
Team member: “What could we have done to prevent this downsizing?”
You: [Talk about a key concept, such as “innovation” that was not occurring].
Team member: “How can we be more innovative?”
You: [Talk about changes to procedures or actions and how you will do things differently in the future]
The implicit and explicit questions in your difficult conversation will be different, but they will always involve why, what, and how questions that involve the six AQ answer types.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
When we talk about unpredictability, we are mainly talking about how-questions and associated procedures and actions. In contrast, concept, stories, metaphors, and theories are often timeless.
For example, from a positivist’s perspective, the goal of social science is to develop universal theories and concepts. This means that attributes of human nature remain surprisingly stable and can be predicted by theories that are consistent over time. For example, we know employees value feedback; this is not likely to change tomorrow, 5, 10, or 100 years from now. However, how (as procedures and actions) this feedback is provided will change unpredictably in the days and years ahead. A new social media app may be invented tomorrow that changes how feedback is provided.
In similar terms, we discuss universal stories. For example, the movies Pretty Woman, Seabiscuit, and Rudy are all based on the universal underdog story. But the action (in AQ terms) is very different in each movie (Pretty Woman involves prostitution, Seabiscuit horseracing, and Rudy involves football). Therefore, even in turbulent times, it is possible for organizations to tell universal stories, even if the details (procedures + actions) may change over time.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Turbulent times are about swirling questions. Effective answers quiet the storm. Identify the key questions, before and during a conversation, and communicate the right answers.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
Poor communication is magnified during difficult times. For example, I learned from a global consulting firm that they were having problems with business development during the Covid 19 pandemic. Before the pandemic, all consulting occurred at client sites. Pre-Covid 19, junior consultants could have water cooler conversations, where they would overhear and stumble over business leads. During Covid-19 all consulting was virtual. The consulting was going great, but they were having difficulty discovering business leads. In AQ terms, the failure to ask and answer business development questions was brought to the forefront. They needed to Raise their AQ.
The following are common communication mistakes, often made more pronounced during difficult times when communication is strained.
- Question recognition. Before you can provide one of the six answer types, you must identify the type of question being asked. AQ is about why, what, and how questions (as technical question types), but often in natural language a questioner may not use the words why, what, or how, or use the words in a clumsy manner. For example, we know pre-school children often use the words “how” when they mean why or what. As individuals enter the business world, confusion around questions often persist. Get the question right, and can then provide the corresponding AQ answer(s).
- Theory and concepts are often dismissed. Too often business professionals think theory and concept are “too academic” and they do not need to be concerned with these answers. This is incorrect. For example, I often meet with executives that are big proponents of employee engagement. But when I ask them “What is employee engagement?” they struggle to define the concept. If I share that employee engagement is often thought of as cognitive engagement (thinking about the job), physical engagement (stamina and energy to do the job), and emotional engagement (caring for the job) those same executives will agree that is it. However, unless you define the concept, you have no operational targets to develop procedures and actions to implement against.
- Do not forget metaphors. Everyone loves stories to emotionally connect, but metaphors are underappreciated. In contrast to stories, metaphors require less skill in the telling, and they are compact (they can be communicated faster). If you love stories, do not forget to communicate with metaphors.
- Overestimation of procedure + action capabilities. Business professionals often overestimate their ability to develop and implement procedures and actions. However, we know from quality perspectives (such as TQM or agile) that procedures and actions can be improved.
- IFor example, If asked you “What is your #1 soft skill?” you will probably be able to answer quickly. Perhaps, leadership or teamwork (concept answers). Then if I followed up with, “How do you lead?” could you concisely identify your procedure for your #1 soft skill and identify high-quality actions? All the answers are challenging, even procedures and actions, if examined honestly and with full awareness of the attributes of each answer type.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
Customer Facing conversations are key. Using sales AQ, challenge your organization to take your value proposition and communicate it in terms of six answer types. Next, Identify 3 exemplars for each of the answer types. Finally, stress test your team’s ability to communicate the value proposition by challenging them to transform any given answer type into another answer type. For example, if your sales rep shares a value proposition story, ask her to discuss the business strategy (or theory in AQ terms) associated with story. Or ask her to identify associated actions that in the story differentiate your solution. So on and so forth, each answer type can be transformed into all five answer types. If an answer type cannot can be transformed into another answer, this likely indicates the original answer is deficient ins some way. These simple steps will stress test and harden your value proposition in even the most difficult economy.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
My research has identified 5 High AQ practices that distinguish expert communicators. With practice you too can Raise your AQ. When times are tough, effective communication is more important to break through.
Provide six answers (High AQ Practice 1). Every why-question can be answered with a theory or story. Every what-question can be answered with a concept or metaphor. And every how-question can be answered with a procedure or action. High AQ practice 1 is about being prepared with six answers, then identifying the best single answer to provide to a given question. For example, with AQ I have identified over a dozen metaphors I can use to explain, “What is AQ?” if asked. In this interview I have discussed AQ is a target — for the first time you have a list of answers to aim at in your next conversation. Other metaphors are appropriate in different situations. For example, a key point of AQ is that it can be used to elevate any conversation. To make this point, I metaphorically describe AQ as a glass that you can pour any communication topic into (leadership, sales, teamwork, etc).
Answer Twice (High AQ Practice 2). When organized around a circle, answers on the left side of the circle (theory, concept, procedure) appeal to the left-side of the brain because they are logical, objective, sequential. Answers on the right side of the circle (story, metaphor, action) appeal to the right-side of the brain because they are creative, subjective, random. Then horizontally, why, what, and how questions can be answered twice to appeal to both sides of the brain.
For example, as a new leader, you may feel implicit pressure to answer the question, “What is your leadership style?” You may answer twice, by saying, “I believe leadership is holding people accountable and inspiring them to be their better selves [this is a concept answer]. Leadership is like a braided rope in that accountability and inspiration are separately strong but made stronger when they are braided together [this is a metaphor]. I will try to hold you accountable and inspire you every day.”
Answering twice should be used for important questions, to provide maximum impact by appealing to both sides of the brain. By using two answers, a premium is placed on the performance art of conversation. With practice your delivery will improve.
Provide Complements (High AQ Practice 3). Abraham Lincoln said, “Everyone likes a compliment.” True praise is always well received, but in AQ the phrase is “Everyone likes a complement” which recognizes that adjacent answers (on the AQ circle) reinforce each other without being redundant. For example, if a mentor asks you “What is mentoring?” you can answer with a concept by saying, “Mentoring consists of role modeling, career support, and social support.” Then you can complement this answer by describing a procedure how to implement social support with an open-door policy. In this example, the new mentor knows what-to-do and how-to-do-it.
In this manner, any given answer (on the AQ circle) can be complemented by adjacent answers.
Answer with Style (High AQ Practice 4). The six answer types cluster into three answer styles. The relational style emphasizes story and metaphor to emotionally connect. The analytical style emphasizes theory and concept to explain and predict. The practical style emphasizes procedure and action to achieve results.
Answer styles are preferences that you and others have when communicating. For example, you may be a story and metaphor machine, always looking to provide stories. Yes, this can be good, but guard against neglecting other answer styles. Also, read the room, and identify the preferred answer style of others. Perhaps you are talking to a direct report that prefers the practical style, then you would be well served to sprinkle into the conversation procedures and actions at a higher-base rate to make the biggest impact.
Answer in Context (High AQ Practice 5). In real estate the adage is “location, location, location.” In AQ, location is where, but you also need to consider when. Therefore, in AQ the adage is “context, context, context.” You must consider the context (when, where) to calibrate each of the six answers. Sometimes the answers will remain the same as context changes. Think about a universal story in a company that is a touchstone for all employees. Other times in sales the case studies (story) need to change to reflect the client and a pharma client gets a pharma case study a banking client gets a banking case study.
To succeed, every answer must reflect the context (when and where).
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands.” — Robert M. Pirsig
Growing up I was a big fan of the book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig. I read the book several times. His quote about the heart, head, and hands starts my Answer with Style (High AQ Practice 4) chapter in the book. The relational style (story + metaphor) influences the heart, the analytical style (theory + concept) influences the head, and the practical style (procedure + action) influences the hands.
This quote underscores that answers provide influence in the world around us.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Please visit my website, www.RaiseYourAQ.com. I would recommend viewing the 5 High AQ practices visually with the six answers arranged around a circle. There is a FREE AQ assessment you can take.