The Obvious Question: And How to Get It Right

In most organizations an important part of leading is being able to articulate and “sell” the great work of your team to other key stakeholders. Strong results and quality thinking in bad packaging can be overlooked. A great presentation can quickly go south, when the team gives sloppy answers to obvious questions.

In her book, Speak Like A CEO: Secrets for Commanding Attention and Getting Better Results, Suzanne Bates cautions leaders to “expect the expected.” Although this seems obvious, it’s the inability to answer the easy and obvious questions that I have seen derail operations reviews, sales pitches, and careers. She shares,

“When Ted Kennedy announced he was running for president, Roger Mudd sat him down in a famous interview and asked, “Why are you running for President?” Kennedy stammered though the answer, and the result was disastrous to his candidacy. One of the biggest mistakes you can make is failing to expect the expected.”

Some Obvious Questions That Trip People Up

.Here are some examples of questions I have asked recently, or have heard others ask in contexts where I was sure the team knew the answers. For one reason or another, they got stuck.

  • Why have your results improved so substantially?
  • What was different in August?
  • How do you know?
  • How does this compare to your competition?
  • What’s changed since implementing this program?
  • How do you know it’s working?
  • What are the employees saying about the change, how do you know?
  • How do you know this is sustainable?
  • What would a pilot teach us?
  • What do you want to do next?
  • Why are you interested in this job?
  • What are you looking for in this mentoring relationship?

Prepare for the Obvious Questions

My experience is that most of this problem comes from over-preparation, rather than under-preparation. Teams spend so much time on all the detail memorizing facts and figures, studying charts that they forget to look up and join the conversation. They’ve prepared for the hardball questions, but miss the easy pitch coming straight down center field.

Here’s some things that can help:

  • Have a talk track, be prepared for a detour
  • Brainstorm all possible questions in advance
  • Practice the answers out loud
  • Do a dry-run with good questioners, ask them to ask tough ones
  • LISTEN carefully to the question actually being asked
  • Consider who is asking the question and why
  • If needed, pause before answering, think before talking
  • NEVER make up an answer, when in doubt take a note and a commitment to circle back

Listen Well: Better Get a Bucket

I believe that after integrity, listening is the second most important leadership skill.

And it is also one of the most difficult.

Listening well is hard.Listening well, consistently, is even harder.

Lately, I have been paying more attention to what is happening when the listening is good.

The key is having some good buckets– categories to help you organize what you hear, and to feed it back.

People need to know that you have heard them that you are with them and that you got the gist.

Buckets help you organize your listening and feedback.

One on One

Imagine an emotional co-worker coming to you with a long story about why a project is in jeopardy. You listen intently to what she has to say, and look for the main ideas.After she is done, you can respond with empathy and understanding.

“I am hearing three main concerns here let me see I have this right “and then spill your buckets.

Helping someone to organize their own thoughts makes them feel better, and usually calmer. Situations seem easier to tackle when they are simplified into groups.

Bigger Groups

This also works in larger contexts as well. I recently watched an executive who was hosting a big conference get up every 3 hours and feedback the big ideas he heard from each speaker. He put his buckets on display, reinforced key messages, and modeled the level of listening that should be happening.

I have also used this technique in large town hall meetings. Rather than respond to every comment, I listen intently and then share (and respond to) the main buckets of issues.

There is value in the trying

Of course sometimes, your buckets will be wrong. That’s okay.

It at least helps the conversation along in a productive way.

Try taking a bucket to your next meeting. It’s exciting to see what might fill it up.