CIO Advice: Listen, Answer The Question, Provide Insights

I was relatively young when I attended my first board meeting. At the time, the board for my startup consisted of executives from some of the major media and newspaper companies including Hearst, Advance, Scripps, and Media News Group. This was back is 1998 or 1999, and like all Boards, they wanted to know how we were growing our business. They had few technology questions, though I do remember one board member asking me to explain browser cookies. So I was mostly quiet and listened during the session.

Now we had two GMs at this meeting, both of them good at what they did, and both were asked to present their businesses. Now if you've been in one of these situations, you know how quickly the Board will send you off presentation. Surely, by slide #2, the questions pour in and the fifteen minutes scheduled turns into a Q&A session. That's usually ok, as long as you know how to manage the situation. You have to answer the questions but still attempt to get your key message out.

Let's just say, one GM was more successful than the other. The advice the successful GM gave me afterward is something that I've remembered since then:

When faced with questions from senior executives, keep three things in mind:
  1. Pause, listen, and understand - Most people respond to questions too quickly. The mouth moves faster than the brain, and it is likely a quick response comes across as babble.
  2. Answer the question - David Kellogg has a great post on this key piece of advice. Executives who have limited time and patience simply want the answer to their question. If they get babble first, they will either tune out or cut you off. So listen first, then answer the question.
  3. Provide supporting insight, data, and details if necessary. Once you answer the question, you then have some room to provide more information. It's likely that you will get cut off with by the next question, but if your response adds insights backed by data, they are more likely to stay engaged.
Despite having this very good advice engrained in me for almost fifteen years, it amazes me how often I get it wrong. I see it in my staff, and it's especially hard for those of us with engineering backgrounds. We're trained to think and solution, so our brains naturally jump into the details bottom up. It's important to know the audience, especially the executive audience, that are looking for simple answers first followed by insights.

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