This morning, the cable news network devoted to business news and reports direct from the world's exchanges, CNBC, eloquently called for world business leaders to step forward and communicate with the public about the inherent strength of national economies and the fact that we can weather through this panic-fueled crisis.
Here in San Francisco today, one of our more visible startups, Seesmic, announced layoffs. Seesmic is an interesting company. It enables people to hold conversations via video, on the Web. It is building user traction on a global basis.
Seesmic's decision to contract occurs on a much smaller scale than something like a Lehman Brothers. The folks affected are part of a team whose members know each other well. When you work in a startup, the working relationships are close in a different way. Everyone is working to build or build out an invention.
I don't know what kind of a response CNBC has received from business leaders, but I don't think anyone could do a better job than Seesmic's founder, Loic Lemeur, in showing how to deliver news candidly yet with great humanity. And English is his second language. Watch this or watch and read his blog post to see how one can execute one of the less attractive tasks of leadership: delivering bad news well while confirming hope for the future.
I think what we have here is failure to communicate.
Meaning that Mr Bernanke and Mr Paulson are not used to having to explain their rationale nor are they used to being questioned. Understood. However, they are doing business with a whole new lender — the American taxpayer — so they need to both accept the fact that they must communicate on the audience's terms and recognize this might require an adjustment.
"Regular" executives face this on a regular basis.
First, always think about what your audience needs, not just what you want. For example, if you're getting ready to deliver a speech, the first thing to consider is the audience. Why is that audience there? What are the various constituencies in that audience, and what do they want to know or hear from you? In this situation, it's critical that you deliver a message — built around your perspective and expertise — that either answers a question they have or tells them something they can use.
Second, consult the experts but stick to what you know. Another example. This morning, on CNBC, economist Diane Swonk was remarkably unconscious of the general audience for the bailout message when she said that some senators' questions were stupid and defended Secretary Paulson by asserting that he is not used to answering questions. I'm sure Bernanke and Paulson are walking into this with a sense of duty — which is why, when you're listening to wonks like Swonk, take their perspective for what it's worth. When you seek the opinions of others in your organization when constructing a message — as you should — make sure to use it to complete your message, not dominate it. Sometimes you'll get an observation that isn't as inappropriate as what Swonk shared today — but that doesn't mean you shouldn't keep it in perspective, either. Think for yourself.
This morning, as I work, I listen to the Senate hearings on the bailout, I check Twitter commentary, I look at a few blogs. Here's what I think We the People must consider when we put the parameters around the $700 billion bailout.
- My experience in providing client service to investment banker types — people with investment bank backgrounds — is that they look out for Number One in ways that most of us would never imagine. Investment bankers do not follow rules, whether we're talking business practices or good manners. Investment bankers are animals. As a group, the only thing that keeps them in line is a big stick. Congress MUST put strict parameters around these guys we are putting in charge of the $700 billion. And we MUST go after the executive compensation packages
- How did we respond to the Enron mess? By neutering the accounting profession. That, folks, was a bone that Wall Street and its cronies in Washington threw to the American public. And it was a predictor that this mess would happen to us. The destruction of Arthur Andersen was a major sign that these guys are all about finding a scapegoat to take the hit for their own sloppy, self-serving business practices. Not changing the way they did business — not learning from the Enron debacle — not interested in hearing from those with expertise that they don't have but that is germane to their activities. Now, we are left with no watchdogs, either in the private sector or the public, to tell us when the cronies have concocted a risk-laden, byzantine set of financial instruments. It is unconscionable that not one person in a leadership position in industry, government or academia did not look at this maze and tell us what they're telling us now: that this confluence of financial instruments was not nor ever was sustainable.
- The reason I turned on CNBC in the first place this morning was to wait for a segment on a client that was taped three weeks ago. Instead, my attention, by necessity, had to be diverted to the dirty job of fixing a problem created by an elite few — most of whom have never invented anything or bought and sold anything you could hold in your hands. Elitists who never had a summer job on a farm or in a factory, who, with their fancy pedigrees, dictate to the rest of us what is success. This mess is not only something we must clean up, it is sucking the air out of one of the stars of the American way: real business, based on real relationships and transactions. Let's get the mess cleaned up and let's make sure it doesn't deplete us or distract us professionally or emotionally.
Email, call, SHOUT at your representatives in Washington. Yes, we want transparency. But we want punishment. Consequences for bad actions, whether they were intentional or not. Do we let people off a murder charge just because they didn't intend to do it? No. The deviant brains who mixed this cocktail of financial instruments need to go to Man Jail. Their property confiscated. Their cash appropriated to the bailout. I want heads to roll.