Chris Strouthopoulos is Founder & CEO of Ascent Empowerment Services where he provides mindset coaching and workshops to help individuals and organizations embrace challenge, overcome limiting beliefs, implement change, and achieve goals. The corporate logo for Ascent empowerment prominently features a mountain, a reference to his ongoing work as a mountain guide leading climbing expeditions around the world.
On the mountain, or in your next business meeting, navigating answers can be the difference between success or failure. The focus of this article is to examine important questions (why, what, how) that the mountain asks of all climbers. Getting the answers right (story, metaphor, theory, concept, procedure, action) is the difference between life and death.
This article is part of the High AQ Interview Series where executives, academics, and thought leaders discuss elevated answers. The following interview is edited for clarity.
High Stakes Answers and Accidents on a Mountain
Dr. G: “One can imagine that climbing a mountain asks questions (why, what, how) that evoke high stake answers (story, metaphor, theory, concept, procedure, action) that a climber must get right or risk death. What is the role of answers in accidents on a mountain?”
Chris Strouthopoulos: “All accidents could be characterized as one of the six AQ answers. Sometimes the accident was a practical piece, a technical error, a procedure and/or action. A friend of mine died at Zion National Park because the rope was rigged incorrectly, a procedural error. The rope got cut and he fell to his death.
Other times, theory or concepts are the cause of accidents. Take an avalanche… people who get killed in an Avalanche resemble a U-shaped curve that plots avalanche accidents and the level of avalanche education. Novice mountain climbers [see point A below] get killed because they don’t understand theory and concepts—they don’t understand the interplay of snow, terrain, and weather. They can’t judge complex hazards that can change minute by minute. Those expert climbers [see point B below] have the education but they have internalized the theory and concepts and are prone to cognitive errors when they over rely on emotion, or emotional decision making.”
Dr. G: “Before we move onto accidents caused by metaphors and stories, it seems to me that procedures and actions are prone to errors when one goes on autopilot. Can you discuss guarding against intuition related to the procedures and actions of climbing?”
Chris Strouthopoulos: “Absolutely. To prevent procedural accidents, go or no-go checklists are increasingly used by avalanche professionals. These checklists are modeled after the airline industry. Additionally, other procedural safeguards feature red, yellow, green lights… as you go through pre-climb, if you tally so many red lights, the climb is a no-go. Or, a combination of yellow lights, and a few red lights triggers the no-go threshold.”
Dr. G: “Returning to story and metaphors, can you explain how one of these is a source of accidents?”
Chris Strouthopoulos: “I was guiding a group of climbers on the Himalayas and stories can lead to success, reaching the summit. Or stories can lead to failure, death, or simply turning around when you could have climbed further. We were going after a 21K peak in the Himalayas, one guy trained for a year, he ran multiple marathons in preparation. He was the fittest person on the expedition, even at 60 years of age. The night before the summit, he started to imagine failure. He confided in me a story of his lack of self-belief and intimidation regarding the climb. And a 3rd of the way up on summit day he froze in his tracks. He was physically capable, and he knew the procedures and actions, but he mentally fell apart. Fear won. Fear is a concept [an answer in AQ terms], that had taken hold as a story in his mind. He told a story to himself of everything that could go wrong. This fear story was not consistent with the facts on the mountain. There were no objective failure threats; it was the best day of the season—no winds, perfect temp, no hazards. Unlike Everest, at this altitude, there is no death zone on the Himalayas. He built a narrative in his head that he was going to fail.
In addition to the failure story toward the summit, an additional story takes hold that often pulls a climber back down the mountain. Climbers create a simple story around how comfortable it would be to have a beer and pizza at a lower altitude. The simple comforts of a comfortable restaurant represent an attractive story that pulls someone back down the mountain. The comfort story beats them. The failure story of climbing up beats them. It is really the collection of stories a climber tells themselves that most determines if they reach their goal- the summit - or not.”
Taking the Mountain to the Business World
Dr. G: “The mountain evokes a heightened experience. Can you explain that for me?”
Chris Strouthopoulos: “The mountain is so visceral, I can look down and see a 5,000 ft drop. The choice and consequences are so immediate, non-negotiable. Either I rope and start up the climb, or I don’t. Either I go for it on summit day, or I don’t. Even though the mountain is complex, it is also a radical simplification of the world, compared to what occurs in a typical business setting. On the mountain, the phone is not ringing, everything is just right to get into a flow experience.”
Dr. G: “As you describe the mountain, it reminds me a lot of experimental design in psychology, the context in an experiment is stripped of non-essential elements, and only the key elements of a context that influence the experiment. In a similar way, mountain climbing evokes positive constraints that allow for these amazing experiences. How do you translate the experience on the mountain to the seemingly more mundane day-to-day in the business world?
Chris Strouthopoulos: “I simulate the heightened context of the mountain, when I consult with my clients off-mountain on Zoom calls. Today I was onboarding a new client and I set up a challenge for him and he responded to this challenge. His response demonstrated his indecisiveness, he was paralyzed and withdrawn. His response to the challenge exercise mirrored how he has responded to divorce 4 years out. In the Zoom call challenge, he had a real experience, a realization of his indecisiveness that he could not have had if he read an article I assigned to him.”
Dr G: “In AQ terms, High AQ practice 5 is Answer in Context, which recognizes that there are key elements of the context that influence any primary answer. In other words, as a coach you revealed the concept of indecisiveness by structuring the context in a way that revealed the indecisiveness. Can you tell me more about how you actively structure context that to create these high-quality experiences with clients?
Chris Strouthopoulos: “When I was doing face-to-face training [prior to COVID-19] I would create challenges for a group where I would give them supplies, such as a blind fold, and clear tasks, with outcomes that were impossible to achieve individually -- success was only possible when they worked together. I designed the context, where they would have a great experience. I was able to approximate a mountain climb where the context is so immediate and pressing, stripped away of distractions that dilute or take away from the potential of a heightened experience. Now when I do Zoom calls [during the COVID-19 pandemic] I will send clients materials in the mail and during the Zoom call we are able to create realistic challenges.
In coaching when context is done properly, it simulates the mountain. The context pushes down upon the climbers, so every answer is heightened. On the mountain, I learned how to dance with fear, talk to myself to go forward, rather than recoil from challenge. Off the mountain, the need to overcome fear is manifested in different ways, in underperforming areas of life… a bad divorce, or not speaking up at a meeting. When coaching is done properly, my clients can reach up and touch the context, which pushes back down upon them to reveal the answers they need to be successful. In this manner the mountain experience is brought to the board room, sales meeting, or anywhere they need to navigate.”
This article suggests at least two High AQ Takeaways.
High AQ Takeaway 1: On the mountain, or in business you are faced with three important questions (why, what, and how) that can be answered with six answers (story, metaphor, theory, concept, procedure, action). The wrong answers on the mountain can mean life or death. In your most important conversations in business, the wrong answers can hold you back from success and thrust you into your biggest failures. Work to get your answers right to reach the summit in your most important business conversations.
High AQ Takeaway 2: High AQ practice 5 is Answer in Context. All six answers are revealed because of a pressing context. On the mountain, the context is salient, and every answer is revealed for being effective -- or not. In everyday life, the phone rings, we are distracted, and the effectiveness of our answers can be lost upon us in a context that is diluted. Chris Strouthopoulos teaches us to “reach up and touch the context” and feel it “pushing back” upon us during our most important conversations. When the context presses upon us, it is an opportunity to discover the answers to close the sale, the answers to get a job, or the answers to persuade the board of a new proposal.
Identifying the pressing context takes effort and skill. Chris does this in his coaching, but we can all look to identify the aspects of the context that press down upon us. For example, in your next team meeting, ask yourself what element(s) in the context are most important? Perhaps, the context will be hiding in plain sight–a recent lost client; or the context is revealed through a shared story that has assumptions that have never been questioned.
The mountain presents a visceral context in which right and wrong answers stand out. As we navigate the business world and have conversations with others, we should seek to bring the context close to us, pressing upon our most important conversations to help us identify the right answers.
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High Sales AQ: Transforming a $500 million industrial manufacturer from a direct to indirect sales model
This article is part of the High AQ Interview Series where executives, academics, and thought leaders discuss elevated answers.
Chris MacKenzie, an industrial manufacturing sales executive discusses a successful effort he orchestrated to transform a $0.5 billion dollar industrial manufacturing sales approach which was 90% direct and 10% indirect to one that was 90% indirect. During this transformation, Chris had to identify and convince a network of hundreds of distributors to sell his product portfolio in addition to his competitors. In the process, he had to successfully introduce end users to the distributors (the new selling intermediary), while realigning an internal sales force of 130 to sell through distributors.
Chris and I discussed the transformation from a direct sales channel to an indirect sales channel in AQ terms. We covered the 5 High AQ practices, the role of conversations (questions and answers) in sales, and the High AQ sales attributes that allowed him to pull-off the sales transformation to an indirect approach. We identified six High AQ takeaways. The following interview is edited for clarity.
Interview with Chris MacKenzie
Dr. G: [We reviewed the 5 High AQ Practices and discussed the implications.] What is your reaction to Sales AQ?”
Chris MacKenzie: “I would estimate that that the top 10% of sellers have High Sales AQ. And most of them are doing it intuitively. The AQ framework can help the low-skilled to the highly skilled sales reps upskill.”
Dr. G: “Which of the six answers (theory, concept, story, metaphor, procedure, action) is something you did not appreciate until it was brought into relief by the AQ framework?”
Chris MacKenzie: “Metaphors. I have never coached, nor consciously applied to use metaphors before. It makes sense because it simplifies… [you can] hit a lightbulb very quickly.”
High AQ Takeaway 1: If the top 10% of sales reps have High AQ, that’s a good thing. However, even the best don’t realize they are using AQ. And there are no systematic efforts to elevate the entire sales origination. The AQ framework and associated 5 High AQ practices represent a way to explicitly surface principles and techniques that can elevate answers provided by the entire sales organization.
High AQ Takeaway 2: Metaphors are often underappreciated in a society that focuses upon stories to make emotional connections with others. Yes, stories are important, but metaphors offer several advantages including compactness (short time to convey) and lower difficulty level to communicate (as compared to a story).
Dr. G: "Your indirect sales strategy involves three parties: The manufacturer (you), the distributors, and the end user. What are the different needs between end users and distributors?"
Chris MacKenzie: "The end users are focused upon product features and functionality, and as you move up the value chain to the distributors, in addition to product features, they are focused upon strategy and overall profitability of the manufacturer-distributor relationship. With the distributors I had conversations about business strategy that went beyond product features, including tiered discounts, packaging, pricing, drop shipping, credit terms, on-time delivery, training, cooperative advertising, and customer service."
High AQ Takeaway 3: In a horizontally integrated supply chain, High Sales AQ recognizes that end-users ask different questions and need different answers than distributors. In this case, end-users ask the how-question and seek action answers (those associated with product features). Conversely, distributors are asking what-questions associated with business strategy (concept answers). Sales reps with High AQ understand that questions and answers may vary across the sales supply chain.
Dr. G: “In AQ terms, you indicated that concepts (e.g., packing, training, customer service) were important to distributors. How could you identify which strategic concepts to focus upon with each distributor?”
Chris MacKenzie: “First and Foremost...you had better go into the meeting in over preparation mode. You need to know what is important to the that specific distributor… talk about their business in that area (customer service, competitive pressures, training, hiring).”
Dr. G: “Let’s say you locate the correct strategic concept; let’s say training is the hot button topic. Then, how would you credibly convey you understand their hot button topic?”
Chris MacKenzie: “You need to give examples…. If you don’t have the right training… we will get you up to speed and show them an example…. Or, if their team is not trained, discuss how your training works. It illustrates that you ‘get’ their business. The relationship with each distributor will not be successful with a ‘one size fits all’ channel program. That is not insignificant. But, you want to avoid the ‘show up and throw approach’… you discuss every feature and function of your product. That will be a turn-off.
High AQ Takeaway 4: High AQ Practice 1 explains that for any given question there is a correct answer. Related to concepts, each distributor had strategic concepts that were more salient to them specifically. Also, in discussing procedures and actions associated with a product, you need to get them just right. High AQ is not just about recognizing which answer to provide (theory, concept, story, metaphor, procedure, or action) – it is also determining the best way to deliver that answer.
High AQ Takeaway 5: Provide Complements (High AQ Practice 3) holds that adjacent answers are related and can re-enforce each other. In this case, Chris wanted to demonstrate that he got the strategic concept correct, and he utilized the adjacent answers of procedure and action to substantiate his claim that he was on the same strategic page with a distributor.
Dr. G: “You initiated a huge disruption—the sales process going from direct to indirect. This was a significant investment of time and energy. Why was this the timing right to flip the switch to an indirect sales approach?"
Chris MacKenzie: “As a major manufacturer we sold to large A-accounts. These A-accounts were consolidating their vendors, and actually downsizing at the time. We wanted access to the much higher number of B and C accounts to compensate for the reduced volume of A accounts: Distributors actually had a better relationship with the B & C Accounts than my direct salesforce. They were looking for single source vendors. We needed to align ourselves with single source vendors. Given this dynamic, it made sense for us to invest in the distributor indirect sales channel to to sell to A- gain access to B & C accounts (as opposed to going direct while giving distributors access to our A accounts – we both grew in a shrinking economy)."
High AQ Takeaway 6: Answer in Context is High AQ Practice 5. All conversations involve primary questions (what, why, how) and associated answers (theory, concept, story, metaphor, procedure, action). These conversations occur within a context. This context activates the focal questions and the appropriateness of answers. In Chris’ case, purchasing department consolidation triggered conversations with distributors that would have not otherwise occurred. Therefore, those with High AQ understand context and how that impacts any conversation. The influence of context is often overlooked. In Chris’ case, internal conversations with Operations, IT, and other departments required a lot of convincing (as they did not understand the contextual changes the way Chris did).
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When the term “Answer Intelligence” comes to mind, what do you picture?
Perhaps Emotional Intelligence (EQ), or Cognitive Intelligence (CQ). Both forms of intelligence have been trending in the business world since the mid-1990s. Refining one’s intelligence leads to better results and communication.
Answer Intelligence (AQ) stands out because it brings out the best of these forms of intelligence in each answer. If you have EQ you can perceive, understand, and regulate your own emotions. This is great, but unless you can provide a story (an answer type) to help ease the pain of another, or a procedure (an answer-type) to deal with an abuse supervisor, EQ has no impact. Cognitive Intelligence is great, but it is only through a theory (an answer type) that intellectual horsepower is shared with others. So on and so forth, EQ and CQ impact the world through the answers we provide to others. Metaphorically, AQ is the tip of the spear, the cutting edge, and EQ and CQ are the shaft of the sphere that provide the direction and force. Without AQ, there is no cutting edge, and EQ and CQ are simply a blunt instrument with no impact upon the world.
Going back to grade school, we learned a taxonomy of questions (why, why, how, when, where, who). Surprisingly, until now, there has been no taxonomy of answers types. We've been missing a framework to organize, make sense of, and use answers to influence others. For the first time, answers have their own taxonomy. AQ is a framework that incorporates question types, creating a direct link between questions and answers, and in the process reimaging what it means to effectively communicate. For example, when answers have a specialized classification system, the essence of what a question is asking can be discerned with greater accuracy.
AQ streamlines the process of arriving at the best answer for each unique question.
What is AQ?
The components of Answer Intelligence are best represented in a circular ordering of variables. At the heart of AQ are the six answers types, three question types, and the nuance of context. The question and answer types correlate to each other. Context—the “when” and “where” of a situation—is incorporated to form the specifics of the answer.
Answers are the currency of influence. Using AQ you can influence others to emotionally connect, explain and predict, and achieve results.
Let’s learn how to raise your AQ using the Answer Intelligence Circle. Listed below are the basics.
6 Answer Types: Story, Theory, Concept, Metaphor, Procedure, and Action
3 Primary Question Types: Why, What, and How
Context: When and Where
The six answer types match up in pairs to the three question types. Story and theory pair with “Why” questions. Concept and Metaphor pair with “What” questions. Procedure and Action pair with “How” questions. Each of this six answer types (story, theory, concept, metaphor, procedure, action) are answered in context. This means that each answer must reflect the context. For example, if you are selling to a prospect, your story-answer will be different depending on the context. If you are selling to a Pharma prospect you will provide a pharma success story, if you are selling to a bank, you will will provide a bank success story.
Getting the Most out of AQ
The order and the combination of answers does, in fact, matter. In studying expert, 5 High AQ practices (approaches and techniques to provide answers) have emerged to distinguish those with low AQ from those with High AQ.
Practice 1: Provide six answers. For each question, there is a primary answer. Understanding and crafting answers consistent with their High-quality attributes makes answers more effective. For example, action-answers should reflect best-practices and be unique (to stand out).
Practice 2: Answer twice. The goal is to appeal to both the emotional and logical parts of our brain. The answer becomes more compelling. For example, "Why should I hire you?" can be answered twice with a story and theory.
Practice 3: Provide complements. Adjacent answer types on the AQ Circumplex reinforces the focal answer. For example, on a sales call, a prospect may have an initial question: "what is your product?" This can be answered with a concept-answer by the sales rep, by defining the product offering. Next, the sales rep can provide a procedure-answer to anticipate a related question. In so doing, the sales rep helps a client understand what the product is and the associated question of how to use the product.
Practice 4: Answer with style. We each have answer preferences. There are three answer styles: relational style (preference for story and metaphor), analytical style (preference for theory and concept), and practical style (preference for procedure and action). By understanding your own style, you can emphasize your strengths and guard against blind spots. Also, and often more importantly, it is important to understand the answer style of the individual(s) you are communicating with to feed them the answers they prefer to consume.
Practice 5: Answer in context. Context is the “when” and “where” of a situation. In other words, the accuracy and effectiveness of an answer varies depending on the details found in the context. Each answer must reflect the context.
When the 5 High AQ practices enter the picture, answers are purposeful and impactful. Answers are elevated.
Answer Intelligence is valuable to apply in day-to-day communication, but also thrives in professional settings. Sales AQ, Interview AQ, Leadership AQ, Coaching AQ, and Training AQ are but a few applications of AQ. In fact, any important conversation can be elevated by AQ.
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Dr. Brian Glibkowski is the author of Answer Intelligence: Raise your AQ.