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Ask This 1 Essential Question Now to Save a Ton of Time Later

It might seem unnecessary, but it’ll make a huge difference.

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BY Peter Bregman - 06 Aug 2018

Ask This 1 Essential Question Now to Save a Ton of Time Later

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

"I can see that you worked hard on this report," Janice, the CEO, told Fred, her head of HR, after sitting through the 45-minute, 33-page PowerPoint presentation about his plans for a talent review process, "but it's not what I am looking for."

Fred was clearly disappointed. He spent weeks on the report.

"What are you looking for?" Fred asked.

Great question, wrong timing.

How often have you put your heart and soul into something -- a sales pitch, a presentation, a letter, a conversation -- only to find that it misses the mark?

I see it all the time and most of the time it can be avoided by asking Fred's question on the front end.

If someone requests a piece of work, make sure you understand their expectations in specific detail. Here are some questions you can ask:

  • What specifically are you looking for?
  • What do you plan to do with it?
  • What decisions are you hoping it will help you make?
  • Do you want a one-pager or a more exhaustive report?

If you don't want to ask the questions -- maybe you already have an idea in mind -- then articulate your plan and check for alignment. I never submit a proposal to a client without telling them upfront how I plan to approach it ("I plan to send you a brief, 2-3 page letter, outlining the five steps we've discussed along with pricing and timing -- does that work for you?")

Maybe you think you should know and don't want expose your ignorance? That's a risky bet. Fred may have done a thousand talent reviews in the past, but if he isn't clear on Janice's expectations, he's just as likely to get it wrong as someone who has never done one before. It's not about ignorance, it's about meeting someone's expectations.

And if you are Janice in this situation, be as clear and specific as possible. Answer those questions above without being asked.

So what was Janice looking for? A set of questions that could help her -- and her executive team -- assess the talent gaps in their teams. She wanted 1 page and a robust conversation, not 33 pages and a monologue.

But shouldn't you give people the freedom to surprise you with their approach? Isn't that kind of detail micromanaging, you might wonder?


After the fact criticism without upfront clarity is micromanaging. Being clear about what you want -- that's just smart, considerate, reliable leadership.

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