A Simple, Powerful Question: What Does This Make Possible?



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I just received notice of a pending summons for jury duty. Given that none of the legal exclusions apply to me, a jury box may well be in my future.

You won’t be surprised to hear that I’m less than enthused about the prospect. Surrendering control of my life and work is low on my list of ways I wish to serve my community. And so I find myself asking the question I ask whenever I feel a wave of dread.

What does this make possible?

Fortunately, I already know the answer. In 2007, I spent a week in the eligible juror pool of a downtown Toronto courthouse. Among more than three hundred people there, I happened to choose a seat beside a connector and community builder, Elise Herzig. Within a few hours, she drew me into a group of a dozen women who passed time by exchanging stories. At the end of our time together, Elise had become my friend for life.

When I need a reminder of what an undesirable situation can make possible, I think of Elise. In moments when I least expect it, good fortune often awaits. It’s just a matter of being open to it.

This is especially true as we build board careers. I’ve written previously about the need to be clear about our goals and what we have to offer as directors. We succeed by being of service and nurturing our sense of drive. While these practices are critical, they depend on our creative (and at times renegade) approach to career building. We all rely on the ability to find opportunity where it is seemingly absent.

In short, what do our circumstances make possible?

In my experience, there are 3 key ways that this question can fuel a board career.

Creatively approaching new opportunities

The founders of a early-stage venture company recently asked me to join their board. I jumped at the chance, eager to encourage growth in a sector that aligns with one of my personal passions. Unfortunately, a catch emerged. Despite never interviewing me, the investors backing the venture didn’t support my joining the board. And that was a potential deal breaker.

I agreed to do whatever was necessary to help the investors feel more comfortable. Before I even met them, however, the “circumstances” question hit me. I could try to win the investors over, knowing that they would always retain some doubt. Or, I could ask what else might be possible.

Prompted by the question, I proposed a different role, one of an advisor to the founders. While enjoying the same financial upside and more control over my workload, I would focus my attention on the people who value my potential contribution without reservation.

Thriving after setbacks

I’ve written previously about the interpersonal challenges of board life. I’m hardly immune and, admittedly, I often take things too personally. In those dark moments when I wonder if I will ever work again, I remember the question.

The answer usually comes in the form of a plan. A plan to improve, to flex my quantitative muscles, and to bring more confident insight to a discussion. I recently chose to respond to negative feedback from a particularly hurtful colleague by raising my game. He had no idea what he could inspire in me.

Leading others

Although our personal challenges feel significant in the moment, they pale next to the stakes and complexities of an organization-wide crisis. When the temptation to point fingers rises, that is when the question demonstrates its true potential.

A discovery of fraud can prompt more rigorous internal controls. A sudden loss of market share leads to improved understanding of customer needs. A CEO’s sudden departure shines a light on the previously masked capability of her direct reports. In every challenge, there is an opportunity to ask what is newly possible. Once the situation is stable, leaders seek information and take time to explore possibilities beyond the negative events.


I understand disappointment and frustration. I have experienced plenty of setbacks. But now, I respond to the obstacles that face everyone with my secret weapon, a question that turns adversity into an advantage.

Question: Are you facing a situation that seems unendingly bleak? How could you reframe it?

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A Simple, Powerful Question: What Does This Make Possible?

by Tamara time to read: 3 min