Spetner: Don’t equivocate when talking with senior leaders

The longtime communications pro details his interactions with a former billionaire boss.

I was asked to join a client call last week regarding a reorganization. The subject matter was sensitive and serious, and several senior people were in the discussion. The individual from our team leading the call was young and smart and knew her stuff. But she was nervous. She was tentative in directing the discussion and didn’t respond directly or confidently when confronted with difficult questions. There were a few awkward pauses until one of us jumped in to move the discussion forward.  

I felt badly for my young colleague. Until that call, I had been consistently impressed with her insight and was surprised at her timidity. She no doubt felt intimidated by the number of senior people in the meeting, and was clearly reticent to share opinions though I suspect they would have been insightful and appreciated. Instead, she equivocated, and that detracted from her authority. I understood this dynamic because it happened to me.

In the 2000s, I worked for a demanding and difficult billionaire. He was brilliant, impatient and occasionally scary. In my second week on the job, he started a meeting by looking at me and saying “Did you read The New York Times today?”  

I froze. I had read the business and sports sections, but that was it. I began to stammer that I had read some of the paper, when he quickly cut me short and reiterated the question, this time with more intensity. “Did you READ The New York Times today?”

“Not all of it,” I said. “Well,” he continued, not missing a beat, “in the Arts & Leisure section there’s a piece about an art collection that I’m interested in.” And then he went on. I noted that he wasn’t particularly bothered that I hadn’t read the full paper, he was simply annoyed that I had equivocated with my answer.

He was wired like a dog that snarls when it senses fear.

This is not uncommon among senior leaders. Time is their most precious commodity, and they often don’t have the patience or desire to coax an opinion from an underling. They’re attracted to confidence and a little bit of chutzpah. And some actually enjoy trying to make you squirm.

It took me a while to understand and appreciate this. I grew up in the Midwest where humility was valued and outspokenness frowned upon. I admired the Japanese phrase, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” But now I know that sometimes you should indeed stick out your head: Confidence goes a long way in winning over senior management.

After I had been working for the billionaire for two years, I received an invitation to attend a small gathering with some of the top communications leaders in the country. It was a creative brainstorming to contemplate the future of the industry, and I was flattered to be a part of it with my counterparts from companies such as IBM, Bank of America, Levi’s and other blue-chip brands. I made the decision to go, and didn’t tell my boss.

But on the first morning, his assistant tracked me down. “He needs to talk to you,” was all she said before patching him through. I waited for him to come on the line.

“Where are you?” he immediately asked.

“I’m in Florida, meeting with the heads of communications from other big companies,” I replied.

There was an annoyed exhalation on the other end, followed by a slightly nasty tone in which he asked, “What does that have to do with our business?”

“Nothing,” I replied, without hesitation. Pause. “OK,” he said, “here’s what I need …” and proceeded to lay out a task for me.

After working with him for two years, I understood that a strong and accurate answer was the best way to go. He didn’t expect me to be perfect or all-knowing, but he did want me to be confident, direct and transparent. And he hated equivocating. 

I hope my young colleague learns this lesson soon, and that she’ll find her voice, even if she worries that her forthrightness will not be well-received. It usually will be.

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