Books: The Power of Questions

By Andy Smith, CMA, CPA/ABV, CVA, ASA
December 1, 2018

Finance executives, whether teaching business, practicing accounting for a large or small firm, or working as internal accountants, must possess a core skill: asking great questions.


Frank Sesno, a former CNN White House correspondent and acclaimed journalist, has made a career of conducting interviews, and in his book, Ask More, Sesno shares the details and secrets of how to get the most from an interview.


As accounting professionals, we are only as good as the data we get. And we won’t get the right information if we don’t ask the right questions. Teachers often strive to master the Socratic method of asking questions, but it isn’t for academics and philosophers alone. To be a great management accountant, we all must master the art of asking great questions.


The best accountants are analytical, not simply processors of data. The analytical skill is grounded in the ability to ask the right questions. As CNN’s Wolf Blitzer writes in the foreword: “If you want answers, you have to ask questions.”


The value of the book, though, isn’t in the entertaining stories that trace Sesno’s interesting career but rather in the deep analysis of when and how to use different types of questions. He explores and gives specific examples of diagnostic, strategic, empathetic, bridging, confrontational, mission, creativity, and legacy-focused questions. And he even discusses how to ask a question without actually asking a question.


It’s a critical skill set. In interviewing business owners and management teams, we of course must gather some specific, fact-based information. We also need to be able to transition and move to the strategic, mission, and legacy-oriented questions in order to gain a true insight into a business and its future.


When we meet with our clients or colleagues, we always have limited time. We need to have the skills to get the most out of the time we have. What often separates us as executives and analysts is the ability to effectively play a role in our interactions, to ask the right questions, and to walk away with the information that we need.


From being a great accountant and businessman, to even being a good friend and effective parent, one fundamental trait is being able to ask the right questions. What do you read that makes you better? And what do you want to be better at?

Andy Smith, CMA, CPA/ABV, CVA, ASA, is a principal and senior managing director with The McLean Group, a mergers and acquisitions and business valuation firm. You can reach him at asmith@mcleanllc.com.
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1 comment.
    Teresa Anderson January 3, 2019 AT 5:23 pm

    this is so true. when I taught MBA students financial analysis and financial accounting, I had a session on “learning to ask questions”. It was eye opening to me. I had assignments where their deliverable was a list of good questions. My answer key would have over 100 good questions, and most students started the semester coming up with only a handful–5 or 7. They learned throughout the semester to up that number to closer to 100. I can’t wait to read this book.

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