I can’t tell you how many times over the years that I’ve needed to coach people to “answer the question” when dealing with senior executives. It amazes me to sit in meetings and watch people hem, haw, dodge, extemporize and do just about anything but answer the question they were asked. I have a old friend who used to say that corporate meetings were often “parallel independent conversations” due to two factors:  the non-answering of questions posed and  the non-listening that comes from people spending all their energy preparing what they want to say next.
Both are bad behaviors. But the one that will stall your career inside your company — or wreck a salescall outside of it — is not answering the question.
In my career I’ve had the good fortune to meet with many senior executives. Almost without fail, they share these qualities:
- They are direct. They speak clearly and in simple language. Buzzwords and spin are the province of middle management, not the C-suite.
- They go fast. They are busy. They don’t want to waste time.
- They want to drive the agenda (and are used to getting their way). This is a key reason why you should not present to senior executives unless asked.
- They have a series of questions that they want answered.
So the best thing you can do in front of a senior executive is answer the question.
- Question: On a scale of 1-10 how is the team working?
- Bad Answer: Well, you know, the guys have been trying hard, things haven’t been perfect, but the team has really been pulling together lately, and I think things are improving. We’ve filled the open headcount and are making real progress.
- What the Executive Hears: Blah, blah, blah this fool is not answering my question blah, blah, blah.
- Good Answer: 7.
- Best Answer. 7, but there one or two key problems to work out.
You should answer the question because the executive wants it answered. You should answer it succinctly because there is a 90% chance he/she has a line of questioning prepared and wants to move through it quickly. I believe the last answer, above, is the best one because:
- It answers the question.
- It’s succinct and doesn’t interrupt a potential line of questioning.
- It leaves a thread the executive can pull if he/she desires.
Verbal hedging can be used to leave such threads open and avoid the huge “disclaimers” that people often insert before answering questions.
- Question: is the project tracking to finish on time?
- Bad Answer: well, you know, you can never be sure about these things, but it is going pretty run, the head PM has had a cold, and we got behind on a few tasks and — gosh you never know if an Act of God is going to interrupt things — and the long pole in the tent is getting some new servers delivered, and risk, yes risk, there’s always risk in managing such projects.
- Good Answer: Yes, but one item on the critical path — server delivery — is holding us up, but not so much that I think we’ll miss the deadline.
- Best Answer: Yes, mostly.
I like the last answer best, because — if I care — I can simply ask: what do you mean by mostly? And if I don’t, then I can proceed.
My advice: in the meetings you attend, start tracking how often people actually answer the question and observe how much time is wasted on useless filler. My guess is that once you start paying attention to this issue that you’ll first be shocked at how often it occurs and second become a much better answerer in the process.
And, if all else fails, then mail people this link.