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My Job is to Interview CEO’s… Here’s How I Motivate them!


One-to-one research interviews have been the nucleus of the research and consulting industry for several decades. A classical research technique, it drives key knowledge-based engagements by gathering critical business insights from hard-to-reach audiences, including high-net worth individuals (HNWI’s), key opinion leaders (KOL’s), subject-matter experts, CXO’s, etc. However, the art and science of interviewing is understood to a lesser degree, than warranted by its significance. In one of our earlier thought-pieces, we had explored The Interview Expedition from the perspective of an interviewer. In the following piece, we turn the tables and assume the perspective of a senior-level respondent. In so doing, we consider the factors which motivate hard-to-reach respondents to share their mind with the interviewer.



This might seem obvious, but finding a demonstrable connection between the information sought and the persona of the respondent is an invaluable starting point to motivate senior level respondents to share their mind. This connection can be established by recalling to memory any of their publications, public statements, blog posts, previous professional engagements, project undertakings, individual initiatives, any previous exchanges with the interviewer, etc. It is a well-documented feature of human psychology that we take great pleasure in talking about our own ideas and experiences. According to classical studies in human conversational behavior[1], people utilize around 60% of their conversations talking about themselves. Moreover, recent neuroscience research at the Harvard’s Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Lab has confirmed this by demonstrating a strong correlation between self-disclosure and those areas of the human brain that are associated with motivation, reward, and pleasure. Additionally, if one considers the ‘Mere-Exposure Effect’ it is plain to see that the respondent would be more inclined to talk about a given subject if their personal perspective is called to mind. Their familiarity with the topic is encouraging to engage them from their point of view, which they have developed over several years of practice. Therefore, finding links between the respondent’s interests, work, and engagements serve as an excellent starting point for inspiring them to open up during an interview.


Another important factor that contribute to the motivation of any senior level respondent, is the opportunity to shape ideas and opinions in their field. As a thought experiment, consider that you are a CXO and that you’ve been active in an industry or a specialized role long enough to get to that position. It is quite intuitive that if a person has spent considerable time pursuing something, they must either be very passionate (intrinsically) about the field or that they must have been sufficiently motivated (extrinsically) to work on it long enough to acquire considerable expertise. According to Victor H. Vroom’s ‘Expectancy Theory of Motivation,’ one of the key ingredients of human motivation comprises Instrumentality, which is the belief that the individual has a role to play in shaping the outcome of any given undertaking. Then, it follows, a key ingredient of that which would motivate you, needs to comprise the opportunity to shape the outcome of the research being conducted. Any senior level respondent is inspired to contribute in shaping the outcome of that sphere of activity over which they’ve spent a considerable proportion of their time and energy. This is what Daniel Pink, in his book Drive, has described as the “yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves,” i.e. Purpose.


Following up on the previous ingredient of motivation for senior-level respondents, another determinant that drives CXO’s to share their mind is the sense of ownership of their thoughts and ideas in the final work product. The interest for an activity in which one is engaged and the urge to make progress in this sphere stems from intrinsic motivation and what Daniel Pink has termed as autonomy – the desire to direct the course of one’s life. This, coupled with how senior-level respondents devote several years to polish their skills and master their particular sphere of activity, is bound to induce some pride and a sense of proprietorship over the originality and uniqueness of their worldview. Respecting this amour propre is fundamental to motivating them to share their ideas, off of their own initiative.


According to the ‘Self-determination Theory’ of motivation, conditions which foster a person’s experience of autonomy, competence, and relatedness are most likely to drive high-quality engagement for activities. So, the interviewer, as guided by the discussion guide, needs to design constraints around the conversation, which not only allow a senior level respondent the comfort of subject-matter experience and the freedom to direct the flow of discourse but also introduce a dynamic of accomplishment. This greatly serves to motivate senior level respondents, as it brings in a sense of intellectual fulfillment through discussion over the sphere of activity where the respondent is engaged. This is also reflected in the highest level of Abraham Maslow’s framework of human motivation (hierarchy of needs[2]) – Self Actualization. The need for realizing one’s full potential forms the basis of any intellectual conversation and, if the interviewer is able to tap into this aspect, it ensures the respondent’s mind-share.

The respondent should be made to feel that they are going to learn something from this conversation. This is accomplished by counter-questioning and asking open-ended questions, while remaining within the bounds of a professional research interview and the discussion context. If the respondent is able to detect a note of curiosity in the tone and manner of the interviewer, it serves to motivate them because it gives an indication of the willingness to engage in an intelligent and learned discussion. This not only reflects civility but, taking into account the trivial nature of any reward that the interviewer can offer, would be the most important decoration for the respondent – to willingly share one’s mind with someone willing to learn from one’s knowledge. If the interviewer can inject a dose of intellectual stimulation into the conversation, it would not only ensure a high-quality exchange, but also secure the creative energies and the commitment of the respondent to explain things fully, till they are understood by the interviewer.


If one considers Abraham Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’, one of the most advanced levels (fourth level) of human needs comprise the requirement for esteem, self-respect, and social recognition. The life-situation of senior level respondents necessarily reflects that they would have secured the basic requirements of physiological needs, safety, and belonging, which relate to the bottom three levels in Maslow’s framework for human motivation. It follows that, if an interviewer is able to secure the respondent recognition and esteem for their ideas, it would drive them to speak more freely and share the most prized thoughts from their understanding of the subject. This is accomplished by acknowledging the respondent’s lesser-known contributions to the field, dedicating sections to the respondent in reports, relaying to the respondent how their (individually or collectively) contributions to the field were used in designing the research, publishing quotations, by acknowledging (not fawning over) the respondent as an expert or thought leader in their field, mentioning them in press-releases and dossiers for the research, etc. Although it should go without saying, but ensuring a sense of recognition is different from publicity and puffery; it doesn’t entail standing on a proverbial soapbox and shouting out praises. Recognition has to be established in sobriety and good taste.

Lastly, appreciation among peers exerts a much stronger motivational influence over the respondent. Highlighting how the respondent was referred by a highly respected peer or that the audience of the results from this study would comprise some sought-after peers, further magnifies and boost the effect created by a sense of appreciation.


Another important ingredient of motivation for senior-level respondents is learning about what their peers in complementary or competitive organizational settings are thinking. This also serves as an excellent cue in the conversation, where the interviewer introduces the knowledge they have collated from previous exchanges and uses that to give this respondent some context to build upon. According to the ‘Causality Orientation Theory’, this squarely falls within the Autonomy Orientation, where a person acts out of individual interest and through a value assessment of the environment. However, one needs to be cautious to ensure this should not lead to interviewer biasing the respondent. One of the ways is to weave in anecdotal examples at appropriate intervals, all the while providing respondents with unbiased answer to specific questions. In cases where an agreement with the respondent’s point of view can be established with such anecdotal examples, this would allow solidifying their outlook.


A powerful aspect of motivation that can serve to greatly enhance the desire of a senior level respondent to share their thoughts on any subject, is challenges. If the interviewer is able to choreograph the conversation (and yes, it should always be looked upon as a conversation, not an interview or a Q&A), so as to timely permit the respondent to challenge the understanding generated through previous exchanges or (in case of a recurring study) the results of the previous edition of the study or the forecasted outcomes of the present research, it could intensify the respondent’s drive to open up and freely share their mind. This understanding is based in a solid foundation of principles observed through the study of game-elements and gaming-concepts. This can be accomplished by inviting the respondent to a conference-call or WebEx to discuss the findings of the study. Additionally, during the conversation challenges can be introduced into the exchange by giving an appropriate dose of pushback to the respondent’s opinions and perceptions. This will not only maintain a state of keenness to inform a spirited dialogue, but also keep the respondent attentive and absorbed. Needless to say, this has to be practiced with utmost care. Unless the interviewer is also a subject matter expert (yes, expert and not just aware) in the area of discussion, this approach can not only back fire but also leave a bad after-taste.


There are some aspects to approaching a respondent’s motivation that can prune the desire to share their thoughts and ideas. A misunderstanding of the respondent’s persona, while pitching incentives can even backfire, in that they might take offense. It would be safe to assume that money is clearly not the most valuable incentive that an interviewer can offer a CXO. Therefore, rewards and incentives must be approached with caution and subtlety. As Daniel Pink has noted, introducing a rewards-based external form of motivation can “extinguish intrinsic motivation, diminish performance, crush creativity, and crowd out good behavior.” While, this seemingly goes against any form of material-reward-only strategy to motivate senior level respondents, one must also not be too hasty in ruling out material incentives. Here, an awareness of the respondent’s persona is very helpful. ‘What do they like’, ‘what are their values’, and ‘how do they like spending their spare time’ are some of the questions that need consideration before deciding upon any incentive. Pitching incentive is a double-edged sword: it may enhance motivation of the respondent and can even exhaust the same. That is why, caution is the word! As a rule, casting incentives should never be approached as a business transaction. Instead of monetary rewards, find something more substantial, such as a customized research offering, a book, a copy of the research’s findings, complementary analyst hours, free business consultation, etc. It must be something either useful to the respondent or something they might value. Another aspect of approaching senior-level respondents which should be dealt with some discretion and prudence is recognizing boundaries. It must be understood that not every channel is appropriate to move senior executive for an interview. Boundaries of decorous professional behavior must be admitted while approaching respondents, for any lapse can extinguish their desire to learn about a research study.


One of the key realities of one-to-one interviews in the research and consulting industry, is that the interviewer has little to offer in return for the respondent’s time and exertion. This is the reason that motivating the respondent through various avenues is fundamental to executing a successful interview. There are several psychological susceptibilities and predispositions which can aid this process. So, while this process may be informed by the science of social psychology, it still remains an art which can be used to inspire high-level respondents to allow the interviewer a window into the wealth of their experiential knowledge.

[1] Dunbar, R.I.M., Marriott, Anna, and Duncan, N.D.C. 1997, ‘Human Conversational Behavior’, Human Nature, Vol. 8, No. 3, pp. 231-246.

[2] Abraham Maslow’s ‘A Theory of Human Motivation’ (1943) maps all human needs into five heads, from the most fundamental to the most advanced.

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