Why Strategic Executives Become Confrontational When Asking Practical Implementation Questions (and What You Can Do about It)?

For Heads of Product Delivery, Development Managers, Heads of Engineering, Heads of Research and anyone who has been shut down in a meeting by their execs.

You are in a meeting with the rest of the senior executive team and the CEO announced that you will deliver XYZ by 2020. The vision and strategy sound nice, but you’re wondering: “how are we going to deliver it when we are stretched already?”.

You can’t hold onto this thought any longer and you ask out loud in the meeting something like this:

“How are we going to deliver this project by this date?”

“What are the tactical and practical steps we are taking to match this strategy?”

“Where are the resources to deliver this?”

Instead of being commended for your down to Earth and practical approach to strategy, you get shot down. The CEO shouts out: “I have 30 years of experience of delivering projects. I know what I am doing.”

You leave the meeting confused and perhaps even angry, because you never got the answer to your question. You are still wondering: “how are we going to deliver it when we are stretched already?”.

Here’s what happened

The answer your CEO gave is a classic “fight, flight or freeze” response when someone feels threatened (or JDE Response — Justify, Defend, Explain as Ciaran Dunne puts it, VP at ARM).

Your question about the practicalities of the strategy sounded in the mind of the CEO like you are doubting their abilities (i.e. “are you sure you know what you are doing considering we only have ABC resources?”) when it actual fact what you were asking (in a direct way) was: “What resources do you envisage we will need to put in place to make sure we can deliver this?”.

Your question made their brain activate the amygdala (survival part of the brain) and respond by defending themselves, rather than consider your question for what it was: a practical question around delivery.

Add to this that if your CEO has 30 years experience it means they most likely formed their views of “how business works” in a era where the leader HAD TO HAVE ALL THE ANSWERS and HAD TO PRETEND they know all the answers even when they did not.

The problem often is that the strategic executive who makes these plans does not know the technical detail you know and how much work this would involve. They are often blue sky thinkers who got to that position of leadership because of their strategic thinking but not necessarily because they can also translate the strategy into practical steps around delivery.

There is a constant challenge between blue sky thinkers and practically minded thinkers in organisations. This is because they speak two different languages and often the blue sky thinker feels attacked by the practical questions, instead of asking the help of the practical thinkers to come up with the answer together.

What they should have done (but probably will never do)

If your CEO was a true leader who is self-aware and confident in their own abilities, they would have responded by saying: “this is a very good point and you are right, we have not considered fully the level of resources we’ll need to employ to deliver this on time. From your expertise of working with the technical teams, how much resource do you think you’ll need to deliver XYZ by 2020”?

I bet this sounds like an Utopian answer in your company considering the sorts of responses you get from your CEO. There are CEOs out there who DO respond like that. Those are self-aware, confident and overall superb leaders who understand they do not have to have the answers to everything.

What you can do about it next time so they don’t react with JDE (Justify, Defend, Explain)?

I hear leaders telling me they are frustrated that their teams don’t take ownership and fly with the strategy they created. Problem is they don’t present or encourage people to take ownership of the strategy, so people wait for the CEO to suggest next steps.

All a CEO like in this example wants is their leadership team to say: “Great strategy! This is how I will implement it, is that ok?”.

Instead of asking:

“How are we going to deliver this project by this date?”

“What are the tactical and practical steps we are taking to match this strategy?”

“Where are the resources to deliver this?”

which are direct questions likely to activate the survival part of the brain (amygdala) and get them into a state of JDE, think about “what can I do to take this forward considering what I heard” and try coming up with steps you think would help deliver this on time and then ask questions which help your CEO feel they are approving your ideas rather than you questioning theirs.

For example:

  1. “How are we going to deliver this project by this date?” becomes

“I really like ABC aspects of the strategy. Considering A and B are things we have never done before so there are significant unknowns, I wonder if it’s worth recruiting 2 people who have expertise in AB? What do you think?”

2. “What are the tactical and practical steps we are taking to match this strategy?” becomes

“This is a bold strategy and the first step I can think that we could take to implement this strategy, at least in my team, would be to recruit 3 people who can do XYZ. Would that be something that fits in the growth budget?”

3. “Where are the resources to deliver this?” becomes

“I can see how this could work. I would need to grow my team to be able to deliver this level of output, would there be budget to recruit more people? I can think of several roles we would need to create to accommodate this level of growth”.

4. If they say something and your response is: “where will we get the resources for this?” — don’t say this in the meeting. Wait until 2 days later, talk to them outside the meeting. This CEO has an idea the big picture of where they want to go, no idea of what implementation looks like. If they are the sort of person who likes to answer questions quickly, but don’t have an answer, they become very assertive and this can come across as aggressive communication. They begin to defend the fact there is something to answer. With this sort of person you don’t question them in public. You meet them afterwards, then you give them a plan. (Say: “This is an option, what do you think?”). It’s not a plan to implement the strategy, it’s a plan about what you will do in the next month to work towards the implementation of the strategy. These people like making decisions, and suddenly you gave them something to make a decision about.

What you can do about it after the meeting?

A couple of days later you go back to the CEO and say: “I have looked at the resources and this is what we can do with my resources.” They might say: “Y is more important to do than X.”

If you have a communication challenge in your work and you are in tech, drop me a line with your challenge and I can write an article about it, in complete confidence: adelina@geekwhisperer.co.uk



Adelina Chalmers a.k.a The Geek Whisperer

Helps Engineers who are Leaders (CEO/ CTO/ VP) get buy-in from their peers/teams/investors by transforming Communication techniques into Algorithms