Answering Exec Questions the Right Way

In my job, I sit in a lot of meetings (comes with the territory of the PM role). Whether or not that’s valuable is probably a separate piece to write but what I see too much of in this meeting is people bumbling through responses to executive questions. This post covers 3 steps to use whenever you answer an executive question to save time, look smart, and grow.

Also, if you happen to have an executive like Jeff Weiner who categorizes their feedback into one-person’s opinion, strong suggestion, or mandate then you can count yourself lucky and skip this blog post (more details on Jeff’s approach here).

Tl;dr

There is a quick 3 step framework to ensure they both answer the question as accurately as possible and, more importantly, learn what business factors and/or emotions made the executive ask the question in the first place.

Details

Let’s walk through a hypothetical example. Let’s say your team builds widgets, you’re presenting your annual plan, and an executive asks “why are the projections for widget production in France 10% lower than last year?”.

What do many people do? Panic.

Walking through 3 simple steps each time can make this process go much more smoothly and help you and your team learn at the same time.

0. Breathe

Ok, I’m cheating by adding a pre-emptive step. But really step 0 is to breathe. If you can look at this meeting as an opportunity to grow and learn as opposed to a way to show off that you know everything (which, you don’t) you can ratchet down the pressure immensely (thanks Tomer Cohen for reminding me of this recently). Also if you struggle here go read Mindset by Carol Dweck).

1. Answer the question (to the limits of your knowledge)

Supposedly, you have a goal for this meeting beyond surviving the 30 minute time block, so take 30 seconds to directly answer the question as best as you know how. Since none of us are omniscient know-it-alls, the answer may be “I don’t know” and that’s ok! If you do know the answer, directly respond to the question at hand and then take a breath to pause.

This is the first place where people go wrong. If you feel like you are going to ramble, maybe while you search for an answer, you should probably respond “I don’t know”. Or if you feel like you need to defend your work (“Well, it’s actually only 9.4% lower, which isn’t that bad because other products are doing worse and the team is still working really hard to get it to this point.”) try to directly answer first, then get to steps 2 + 3 to uncover the emotion behind their question.

You’ll be surprised that, quite often, a quick answer (even “I don’t know”) is all the exec needed to hear, and you can move on with the meeting.

2. Explain your answer (if needed)

First of all, this is only if needed! Many times, you can just directly answer the question and skip ahead to step 3. Most reasons to qualify your answer boil down to your answer being based on assumptions that, if wrong, would meaningfully change your answer.

Let’s say that your projections on widget production in France were spotty because you’re understaffed there and are having trouble getting your hands on past financial records. Or you’ve got 3 big clients that are likely to churn for various reasons so you think demand could be lower. Examples like that would be important qualifications to your answer.

3. Understand why the executive asked the question

This is the most important step.Even if your answer in #1 is “I don’t know,” you should still figure out what’s driving the executive to ask the question. Is she fearful about the state of the business? Does she know something that you don’t about upcoming strategy shifts/headwinds? Is she just curious?

Understanding the why, or the emotion, behind the question will often lead to a much meatier discussion that helps you improve your product, strategy, or whatever else you came to discuss much more than directly answering the question. Alternatively, if the executive is just curious you can save your team HOURS of work figuring out the answer to a question that doesn’t actually matter.

Sticking with our “widgets in France” example, it could be that the executive has seen softness in other lines of business in the same region and is trying to connect the dots or it could be that she is unsure if the team has aggressive enough targets.

You won’t know what reasons/emotions are driving these questions unless you ask. When you ask why they want to know, the worst case is that you save you and your teammates time (they were just curious) or, at best, gain perspective as to how your team could be thinking about the problem at higher altitude.

How to ask for the question behind the question

A few people I shared this draft with asked how they could ask this question without being offensive. I have a few of my favorite ways, but post in the comments others that you use!

I'm a Product Manager who loves to solve problems at the intersection of how to help people get value out of complex ecosystems and how people make decisions.