Answering Exec Questions the Right Way

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.

  1. If needed, explain your answer in more detail.
  2. Understand why the executive asked you that 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?”.

  • “This other market is way up on projections; why don’t we talk about that!”
  • “Crap! I have no idea why but I don’t want to look like an idiot. Let me see what I can come up with. Or maybe I can just pass the question to someone else.”

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.

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.

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?

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!

  1. What would we do differently in our strategy if the answer to your question was X?
  2. (assuming we don’t know the answer) I think it will take the team about 2 weeks to answer this question, which will have some tradeoffs. How important is it to you that we understand this aspect and why?
  3. How precise of an answer do you think we need to this question? We could do a one-day of work version or a three-week version

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Chris Hatfield

Chris Hatfield

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.