When to push the panic button

I play this game in my head where I try to guess the outcome of public controversies. I'm shocked at how often I'm wrong.

I play this game in my head where I try to guess the outcome of public controversies. I'm shocked at how often I'm wrong.

For example, when Arnold Schwarzenegger threw his hat in the ring to become governor of California, I quickly decided there was no way The Terminator could get elected to public office. I also predicted that Yahoo's CEO Scott Thompson would not have to resign over his résumé inaccuracy.

At the time, I thought, "Who really cares what his undergraduate degree was in? At least he graduated." Good thing I'm not a betting man.

It is really hard to know when a molehill will become a mountain. I have a pet peeve about lawyers and PR people who instantly press the panic button over issues that don't merit it.

They're always saying things like, "Imagine how this memo will look on the front page of The New York Times," or "Do you realize how people will react if one employee decides to tweet this?" I find that they fill the room with a lot of unnecessary fear, when what's really required is some perspective. But sometimes they're right and sometimes I'm wrong. The true art lies in knowing when to say when.

One time I worked for a president of North American operations who had just gotten remarried after being single for a long time. About a year after the wedding, he was contemplating an extended honeymoon to Hawaii with his new bride and was excited to get away.

There was only one catch - the trip was scheduled to go past Christmas and into the first week of January. This meant he would miss the most important and visible trade show in our business, which was kind of a big deal. Prior to his vacation, he brought up the scheduled trip and asked me if I thought it would be a bad thing for him to miss the trade show.

I thought about it for a minute and ultimately decided it wouldn't be such a bad thing. While it definitely would be better for him to be at the show, we didn't have any major product introductions. It was mostly media interviews, glad-handing, and schmoozing, so what could be so bad about him being absent? I was so wrong.

By day two of the event, rumors began to circulate about my boss. Where was he? Why was he missing? Was he really on his honeymoon or was that just a cover? Was his job in jeopardy? It quickly spun past my ability to tamp it down.

To make matters worse, unbeknownst to me was the fact that my boss was on a little bit of shaky political ground and his absence from this event exacerbated the situation.

At one point I overheard the president of our PR agency proclaim to some colleagues at the event, "What was this guy thinking? How could he possibly not show up to the most important public event of the year for the company?"

I didn't have the guts to admit that I told my boss he didn't need to be there. Ultimately, of course, it was his decision and he was a big boy.

However, it was also a moment when my disdain for the panic button worked against me. I know myself and my first tendency is to not overreact - this has generally served me well over the years. But sometimes you've got to react swiftly and convincingly. And knowing exactly when to do that is what merits the big bucks.

Maybe I should just adopt the George Costanza philosophy from Seinfeld and do the exact opposite of whatever I think. Or maybe not.

Don Spetner is EVP, corporate affairs at executive recruitment firm Korn/Ferry International.

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