Senior Level Counsel: Arm Yourself with the Right Questions, Not Just Answers

One of the biggest mistakes I ever made in the business of communications happened to me when I was a young account executive at a global PR firm. My client was the CEO of a logistics company. To describe him as tough-as-nails would be an understatement.

He’d taken on investor groups, regulators, unions and competitors with a bare-knuckle approach to business. If you screwed up, he was the first to tell you, and in a way you would never forget.

There was a method to his old school madness. He managed a lot of people. In his mind, if he had to repeat himself, he wouldn’t get anything done and his companies would fail. He had a reputation for choosing not to have to repeat himself, which meant if you were the target of his wrath, you felt it.

When it was my turn

I remember when I discovered this dynamic for myself.

The CEO was in the midst of the emergency shutdown of a major operation to meet the expectations of his investors and keep the rest of the company from sinking under the weight of the failing division. Times were changing. Competition was intensifying. This division had already lost.

It all came to a head on a Friday night in the meeting rooms of a small chain hotel in a crossroads town, where the failing division was headquartered.

The company’s senior managers and consultants were all in the main conference room, waiting their turn, each expected to stand and deliver their plans for their role in the transitionary process. The CEO sat in the back of the darkened room, behind a blinding light coming from the Powerpoint projector. He peppered every presenter with questions.

First went Finance, then Accounting, then HR, then Legal, and then it was my turn, Communications.

You would think that after having watched the CEO verbally destroy everyone who presented before me, I might have learned something.

I didn’t, until I did.

Every presenter was expected to cover what his or her respective function would do to facilitate the shut-down of the division with as little impact on the larger company and its people as possible. Every presenter took the stage with a plan that tried to anticipate every one of the CEO’s questions and preemptively answer them. In other words, we all thought we were expected to have all the answers before we presented our plans.

This is hardly unusual. Anyone knows that if you have to give a presentation to any CEO, you want to be as buttoned down as possible.

So, when it was my turn, I started to lay out our communications objectives, strategies, targeted audiences, key messages, timeline, and a plan for implementation of a communications strategy. Like the others, I didn’t get too far into my presentation before the CEO started laying into me from behind the bright projector light hitting me in the face.

Question after question for which I didn’t have the answers. Most questions were ones no one could answer because none of us could predict the future, I thought.

Maybe it was the time of day at the end of a long week and I was tired. Or maybe it was because I couldn’t actually see his face, or that to get to this meeting I had just driven through a blinding snowstorm, passing tractor-trailers stranded snow-deep in ditches. Whatever the case, my own patience was as tapped out as his.

So, as respectfully as possible, I mustered up the pluck to start asking him questions. I asked him what he viewed as the best possible outcome. I asked him how he thinks this project would be perceived once implemented, and what he felt was the best-case scenario or a worst-case scenario.

There were two company managers to my right waiting their turn to speak. The expressions on their faces told me I was taking a risk. You just don’t put this guy on the spot, was the conventional wisdom.

That’s when something totally unexpected happened. He calmed down. He answered my questions reasonably and thoughtfully, and in such a way that I wondered what had happened.

Then it hit me, he didn’t want us to have all the answers.

This was a working meeting. It should have been a collaborative environment. As important as it is to have ideas on what to do, it’s just as important to tap the power of the collective mindshare in the room, especially the CEO.

He didn’t want to have to tell us what to do. That was certain. But he didn’t want us telling him wat to do. He wanted us to come into the room armed with ideas and plans, but above all, the right questions. He wanted to know that we recognized that some things couldn’t be decided until we, as a group, discussed some of the most pressing challenges and asked the right questions.

Somewhere in the course of my time in the room, we were able to hash out an actionable communications plan, one that was realistic and had the best chance for success. We couldn’t prevent the closing of a division, but we were able to communicate that this was a last-resort measure designed to save the larger company and those who depended on it.

The lesson for me going forward was and is that there are times when we can’t be expected to have all of the answers, but the most important thing we can do is to go into these critical moments armed with the right questions.

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Going forward, I will cover more topics like this. Also, I prepared a guide on the Four Steps You Can Take to Change Minds When the Coverage is Not Fair or Balanced. Please feel free to get in touch with me to get your copy.

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Posted in Corporate & Strategic Communication, Crisis & Issues Management, General, Pittsburgh, PR & Media Relations, Workplace Communications and tagged , , , , , .