The One Key to Dealing with Senior Executives: Answer the Question!

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 give a presentation 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 people 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 they have a line of questioning prepared and want to move through it quickly.  I believe the last answer, above, is best because:

  • It answers the question.
  • It’s succinct and doesn’t interrupt a potential line of questioning.
  • It leaves a thread to pull if they so desire.

Simple 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 well, 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.

30 responses to “The One Key to Dealing with Senior Executives: Answer the Question!

  1. Pingback: The One Key to Dealing with Senior Executives: Answer the Question! | Kellblog

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  4. It’s unfortunate, but this nonsense permeates all levels of society now. Right down to the lowest level. It’s bizarre.

    Just this week, I called a store. The guy keep interrupting and asking me questions. Finally I got him to look at their own website, and pointed out the product I was calling about. “Do you have that in stock?” He responded with yet another stupid and irrelevant question concerning what I would use it for. Even though he didn’t even know what the product was! “Just a minute. The question is, do you have that product in stock?!” He then put me on hold for five minutes, and I eventually hung up! And went to a different store.

    It doesn’t seem to matter how incredibly simple it is, some people can’t/won’t/fail to/refuse to answer the simplest of questions.

    How do these people get hired? And interface with people? Do they ever accomplish anything for the organization? Why and how do they get promoted into management?

    From what you say, perhaps I’m stuck in the wrong role in life, and really should be an executive. :)

    Great article!

  5. Great post Dave. It inspired me to write my own post on this subject: – Hope you are well!

  6. Gerd Nachtsheim

    Excellent article!

    I recall a meeting with the owners of a company where my account manager had a fifteen minutes “shot” in which he squeezed all the buzzwords he knew about a new product with the speed of machine-gun.

    When he finished, the CEO gave him a friendly smile(today I think it was an evil grin) and then asked me(the Sales Engineer) to repeat what had been said in “much less words” using a vocabulary that they could understand.


  7. Great post Dave. Having been in many c-level meetings with you throughout our terrific years at MarkLogic, this is something that you and I did so effectively well. When one learns to listen, respond succinctly and honestly, that’s when vendor speak goes away and trust enters the relationship.

  8. The post is excellent , if there could be some light thrown on how to manage the difficult questions by a Executive. Because most of the time people end up defending and give long explanations as they are anxious of what might result in a typical ‘Go’ ‘NoGo’ answer.

  9. Really liked the post. These are the soft skills we need to focus in order to be effective professional / social life.

  10. Great article!

    I do my best to follow these tips, but must say that I’m sometimes let down by my poor skills at either ‘positioning’ the meeting with the exec’s or having them quiz me over a number of points that I didn’t see coming. End result is that they can rip into aspects of my presentation and I can look foolish.
    To be fair, they are known as a very difficult bunch of exec’s but that doesn’t help me much.

    Been looking for a book / course that could help me with this but not found anything on the market.

    Maybe the above could be the basis of another article?


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  20. Great post, I will always remember the answer given to “how much does a bus cost?” as the prime example for how not to answer exec questions. you know the context to that one Dave…

  21. Yep, I love the “how much does the bus cost” as a great example. The answer should be a number associated with a currency. Not a treatise.

  22. I’d love to know the “how much does a bus cost?” example.

    Since first responding in 2012, I made a post last year that touches on the same question.

    It puts the online characters you meet online onto 2 axis:
    Helpful vs not
    Knowledgeable vs not

    Classifying them into:
    Trolls, Speculators, Snobs, and Team Players

    Usually, only the Team Players succeed in actually answering questions correctly.

    I estimate that real team players are pretty rare, only 5% to 10% of the online population.

  23. Dave: You missed your famous story about the three kinds of people and how they answer the simple question: “what time is it?”
    1. The guy who tells you the time
    2. The guy who tells you how to build the watch, and then tells you the time
    3. The guy who tells you how they built the Swiss village that built the watch, but never gets to actually telling you the time, because you’ve strangled him.

    • My telling is usually: when you ask the time there are three types of people: those who tell you, those who tell you how to build a watch, and those who tell you how to build a Swiss village. And yes a lot of type IIIs never get to finish the tale :-)

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  25. A decade on, I’m still using this as essential guidance for my team. Thanks yet again, Dave.

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