When is it okay to fire the person investigating you? — Frequent Questions

Q: When is it okay to fire the person investigating you?
A: Whenever you’re ready to be impeached.

I try—I really try—to confine the politics to Friday. And I know today is not Friday. Full disclosure—since we try to be transparent here at Bennett Ink—it’s not even Wednesday for another 85 minutes. But Wednesday’s blog is the feature I think of as “WTF? Wednesday”: Frequent Questions. Which explains the question in big type above.

Why don’t I call it “Frequently Asked Questions,” like everyone else on the interwebs? I addressed that in the very first Frequent Questions post. And if we’re being perfectly honest here, nobody has actually ever asked why we spell FAQ without the vowel around here.

See? I answer both the questions you ask and those I know you wish you’d asked. And sometimes, like Steve Jobs, I invent things you didn’t even know you wanted.

Case in point: Nobody asked the question I’m addressing today. The person who should ask that question has less capacity for self-reflection than a goldfish. But, really…

investigating can get complex

Don’t like the investigating? Don’t call attention to it.

Ask any kid who grew up during Watergate: even those who were toddlers back then learned that the cover-up is always worse than the crime. Although he’s much older than me, I guess the man in the White House wasn’t paying attention to that particular civics lesson. Here’s hoping he’s forced to learn it now.

What’s a more blatant indication of guilt than firing the person investigating your cronies—and, very possibly, you too? The sensible thing to do would be to fire yourself—to resign, as Nixon did. Only much, much earlier than Nixon did. And I can’t believe I’m writing this, but while Nixon may have been a crook at least he was a proud American. He didn’t sell out our democracy to curry favor with a hostile state. Of course, it’s entirely possible Trump didn’t do that either, but it sure seems like someone in his orbit did.

I have no answers about what’s going on in my suddenly fragile country. Only more questions, every damn day. I pray there are honest people left in the judiciary and the rest of the legal system who can answer them properly before the useful idiot in the White House gets us all nuked.

The challenge for Boeing’s CEO: Language and money

Donald Trump sent a petulant (and false) tweet this week about the cost of Boeing’s contract to build new presidential airplanes. Boeing’s CEO countered with the facts. But not before the stock took a tumble.

Boeing's CEO responded to Trump's intemperate tweet

I’ve seen a lot of analysis focused on whether or not Trump still owns his Boeing stock; whether or not he and his cronies might have planned to drive the price down for their own financial interest. All important stuff to consider.

But it seems clear that what prompted Trump’s tweet was an interview in which Boeing’s CEO criticized Trump’s proposed trade policy. The CEO offered his opinion. The president-elect’s tweet incited the markets to punish the exercise of free speech.

Trump’s tweet cost Boeing $1.48 billion in market capitalization—only about 1% of the company’s value. But still, to update the old political quip, “A billion here and a billion there and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.”

This is scary stuff. Trump put Corporate America on notice that he will not tolerate criticism. And those that dare to speak critically will risk their jobs—and the financial health of the people who depend on the companies they lead.

Money is the fastest way to get any company’s attention—and of course Donald Trump knows this. So I expect we’ll see more encounters like this…until we stop seeing them altogether, as executives censor themselves. I cannot tell you how sad I am to write those words.

Boeing’s CEO and the Wrath of Trump

CEOs and the boards of directors of publicly traded companies are legally bound to do everything they can to maintain (or, better yet, increase) the stock price. Shareholders have been known to sue executives who make decisions that lower the stock price. That’s why so many companies these days focus on short-term gains rather than long-term investments: the markets only care about this quarter, not four years from now.

But the president-elect’s public displeasure doesn’t just affect the big institutional stockholders—the kinds of people likely to file suit. It also affects the executives who receive stocks, or options to buy stocks, as part of their compensation plans. And the folks on the factory floor who buy discounted shares through their Employee Stock Purchase Plans (most companies have them). And many millions of people unconnected to the company who may own its shares outright or through mutual funds—many linked to retirement savings.

We will need some extraordinarily brave CEOs to risk the combined financial and legal pain that the tweeted Wrath of Trump can unleash. Is free speech worth years of litigation? And maybe even losing your job? Personally, I’m not willing to put a price tag on the First Amendment; I’d like to believe the nation’s CEOs aren’t, either. But I’m not holding my breath.

After initially countering Trump’s tweet with a fact-filled statement, Boeing’s CEO Dennis Muilenberg figuratively kissed the president-elect’s ring in a phone call. Boeing’s second statement informed us:

“Muilenburg congratulated Mr. Trump on his election win and committed to working with the new administration to control costs as they establish requirements for the new Air Force One to keep the program as affordable as possible and deliver the best value to American taxpayers.”

I understand: most executives aren’t used to dealing with schoolyard bullies. That’s not how civilized society has worked to this point; it’s not how the economy has worked. But sadly, it looks like that’s the direction we’re heading.

Now more than ever we need CEOs with a firm grasp of ethics and free speech. We need corporate leaders who aren’t afraid to speak truth to power. We need executives willing to risk short-term difficulties to preserve our nation and our economy for the long-term.

Will we find them? Stay tuned.

Storytelling and Problem-Solving

The other day I came across a quotation attributed to Pablo Picasso: “I am always doing that which I cannot do in order that I may learn how to do it.”

He sounds so cheerful about it, doesn’t he? But problem-solving is hard. If tackling something were easy, I suppose we wouldn’t call it a problem.

Fortunately, we have at our disposal a way to help our colleagues and audiences tackle their challenges: We can tell stories.

Now, I know about the old canard that when you only have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Yes, I talk about storytelling a lot. But I’m not the only person who sees stories as a great tool for problem-solving. Here I quote from the gospel of Make It Stick by the marketing evangelists Chip Heath and Dan Heath:

“Stories are like mental flight simulators; they allow us to rehearse problems and become better at dealing with them.”

Stories get into our brains in a very different way than facts do. And they stay there—they’re “sticky,” in the Heaths’ term.   Certain skills may need to be taught more analytically, but not every problem can be solved with a calculator.

I write a lot about business ethics for my clients—it’s one of my favorite topics. Virtually every company has developed a Code of Conduct it expects its employees to adhere to. And some industries have regulations imposed on them by government or other agencies. Employees sign contracts specifying that they’ve read and understood this information, but no one could possibly retain all of it. You don’t remember rules; you remember stories.

Think of the 10 Commandments—arguably the most famous and widely read “Code of Conduct” in the world. Can you list them all? If you’re like most people, you’ll get through two or three at the most.

The story of the 10 Commandments is easy to remember—Moses (or, depending on your age and degree of religiosity, Charlton Heston) climbs the mountain alone, while his people wait expectantly below. The Lord descends in a pillar of smoke and delivers two stone tablets containing the law. This is powerful stuff; no Ethics & Compliance Department can compare.

And yet you still can’t name all 10 without Googling.

So, how do you make your corporate “commandments” stickier? Turn them into stories.

Tell cautionary tales about how rule-breakers meet their fate. Tell funny stories—yes, I said funny stories. I know ethics is serious business, but do you want people to remember your stories or not? So tell stories that will make your listeners or readers smile, even as they store the information in their mental “don’t do this” file. Tell real stories—your own or others’—that get at the emotions involved: the frustration at being confronted with an unethical behavior, the dismay of needing to sort through the numerous “gray areas” we encounter every day to find the path to something closer to the right decision.

What do you think about when you hit those gray areas? Do you mentally shuffle through hundreds of pages of regulations written in legalese? Or do you remember that story about Joe and how he handled a similar situation?

Tell stories. Early and often. You won’t regret it.

Bad taste

An agent I sometimes work with just sent around a notice to his list about a guy looking for someone to ghostwrite his memoir. “This is an incredible opportunity,” the agent assures us, “for a writer enthusiastic about the subject matter.”

I am not that writer. And I’m having a bit of trouble processing the idea that my agent is that agent. “The subject matter,” you see, is organized crime—one particular subset of it. So that “competitive compensation” the memoirist promises? We’re safe to assume he didn’t get it by selling Bibles to old ladies.

My agent writes, “We expect a huge response from this listing.” Of course they do. Gangster books beget gangster movies, TV shows, royalty checks. And let’s not forget the bragging rights. You could dine out for the rest of your life on “the time the gangster told me…” But as the writer who sets that chain in motion, how can you separate the stories you’re telling from the real people whose lives were ruined (or at least changed, not for the better) by the colorful old man paying your fee?

Yes, it’s business. “Just” business. The book will be written, the money’s going to go somewhere, so why not be the person doing the writing, or the agent taking in the commission? It just leaves a bad taste in my mouth, that’s all.