Avoiding Tough Questions Has Consequences For Those At The Top – Bad Ones!!!
By MD2MD communications-boosting speaker, MICHAEL DODD
Giving great answers to tough questions at work really, really, really matters for your career and your business.
There are serious consequences for avoiding giving a proper response to a well-targeted question – especially if the non-answer takes place in the glare of the media spotlight.
Alas there many examples of business leaders giving bad responses to tough questions – where they and their companies end up paying a big price as a result.
One of the more infamous examples of a spectacularly poor response has been provided by the man who was the boss of one of Britain’s biggest housebuilding firms, Persimmon.
Before being removed as the Chief Executive Officer, Jeff Fairburn was the biggest beneficiary of a highly contentious, massively generous executive bonus scheme.
There was uproar when it was revealed that the result of the scheme – which was linked to the Persimmon share price and was totally uncapped – was that Mr Fairburn’s bonus amounted to £75-million.
This was – not surprisingly – labelled as “excessive” by shareholders and criticised by charities, churches, politicians and Persimmon customers among others.
Now it’s probably fair to assume that a typically community-minded member of MD2MD might strongly believe that those at the top should set a better example than Mr Fairburn.
But rather than concentrate on the dubious morality of the bonus, what we’re focusing on in this article is what happened to Mr Fairburn from a media perspective.
Be Ready For Surprise Questions
After the initial storm over the record bonus, the issue gradually disappeared from the media spotlight, as often happens with big stories.
But then, six months later, something happened that took Mr Fairburn by surprise – when he really should have been expecting it and been ready for it.
Mr Fairburn made himself available for a TV interview at the opening of a new company brick factory.
While he was doing the interview, the well-researched and persistent BBC reporter started asking about the bonus.
Mr Fairburn’s response was atrocious.
He refused to answer the questions.
He looked embarrassingly shifty.
And he walked out of the interview.
Then he declared that asking about the bonus was “most unfortunate”.
It certainly was for him.
Mr Fairburn performed so spectacularly badly, it only served to reignite media interest in the bonus story by the BBC and other news outlets.
The tough questions for Persimmon endured.
Shortly after the walk-out, Mr Fairburn was asked to leave his post by the company chairman and, amidst renewed public uproar, he saw that he had no choice other than to do so.
“It is clearly now in the best interests of Persimmon that I should step down,” were his parting words in the press release.
What’s REALLY significant is that Mr Fairburn’s removal wasn’t an immediate consequence of his unwise acceptance of the £75-million bonus.
It was Mr Fairburn’s refusal to properly answer questions about it six months later that sparked renewed examination of the issue and which triggered his departure!
Learning From The Housing Boss’s Blunder
So, the learning points for all business leaders – inside and outside MD2MD – include:
- Refusing to answer questions about a big issue won’t make it disappear
- When there are major questions for you to tackle, you need to make sure you sort out your approach in advance so that you’re well-positioned to give a proper response
- If, for any reason, you can’t or won’t talk about something in particular, then at the start of your response you need to give an excellent reason WHY you can’t or won’t discuss it
- Once you’ve given a credible reason for not answering, go on to say the most useful thing you’re in a position to say on the topic to convey a powerful helpful message to the questioner and any wider audience
- Learning to give great answers to tough questions is a learnable skill which can be enhanced by planning, preparation and practise.
These are the kind of takeaways that are delivered in our MD2MD workshops on “Give Great Answers To Tough Questions”.
The sessions equip you with the golden formulae for answering nasty questions, tricky questions, probing questions and all those other tough questions which, as you may have noticed, tend to make their way to the top.
So in the session, MD2MD participants are able to focus on dealing with your toughest question – whether it’s from the media or from clients, prospects, suppliers, officials or even members of your own team.
The most important benefit is that you come away with a framework for answering tough questions and an understanding of how you can apply it to any situation on any topic.
You make a start on applying the framework to your toughest issue within the MD2MD session.
During the session we work on the content of what you say, the way you structure your replies and the way you look and sound and feel as you deliver them.
It typically takes ongoing training and practise to get to a level of such competence that you are as bombproof as you can possibly be.
But members find it of comfort to know there is a way of dealing with tough questions that hits the win-win-win point between the answerer, the questioner and any wider audience such as TV viewers or colleagues in the boardroom.
Enhancing Your Confidence As You Answer
And the good news is that acquiring the formulae and the knowledge of how to deploy them is a confidence-enhancing experience.
It may not feel confident-enhancing at the time if you’re selected to demonstrate any flaws in your current answers early in the session, but it will feel confidence-enhancing towards the end of the session when you’ve started to move to a higher level of competence.
And it will certainly feel confidence-enhancing when you’re back behind your desk and the next battalion of tough questioners start knocking at your door – and you confidently know in advance exactly what to say and how to say it!