Leaders face multiple fronts on which they need to understand what they need to know; they need to be able to get to the truth. They need to sort through true options in order to make decisions based on reality. They need to question astutely. They need nuanced interview skills for critical functions:
1. Leaders’ employees don’t always, and perhaps rarely, tell the unvarnished and entire truth upwards: shading reports, as Shakespeare noted, has long been conscious career strategy. Except in the rare environment, employees are notoriously not only afraid to “tell truth to power,” they don’t want to be the “bearer of ill tidings.” Yet leaders do need to get behind the formal presentations and the day to day blandishments of the people who report to them. They really do need the truth: they need to understand what the presentations made really mean and what their own direct reports really think. They may not need to know all that these people know, but they do need to understand what is known and not known, what the facts and factors really mean, and what the critical facts and potent looming threats actually are. They do need to be “in the loop” in order to lead effectively short term and long term.
2. Transactions are negotiated face to face by business leaders long before the work ever gets to the lawyers and accountants. How many acquisitions worked out on the golf course or in weeks and months of ‘conversations’ haven’t had major time bombs hidden inside them, from toxic material (Halliburton/Dresser) to massive fraud (as alleged by HP regarding its acquisition of Autonomy, over founder Lynch’s denials). Look at what Citigroup might have avoided had it asked the right questions and not lent $126MM to Stern in a tangle of schemes that extended to the N.Y. statehouse and New York City Council. Look at what Grant Thornton auditors might have stopped or even prevented but, in the event, left for Blackstone to dig through in its Parmalat discussions with the Tanzis. The fallout from bad acts and bad decisions lives for years.
3. Internal investigations have a new focus in a day of U.S. FCPA, AML, SEC, and other enforcement, and yet most leaders tasked with the internal role probably have never been trained in how to interview people effectively, nor have their outside counsel. In internal investigation, should there be room for muddling through by middling interview? Employees and suppliers’ employees out there in the value chain may be innocent, confused, clumsy, or simply not too bright. However, out there on the gray front, a culture of wrongs, illegalities, and downright high penalty felonies may also be forming. Lately we have seen a new ‘roll call’ of entrenched circles of corruption: FIFA, HSBC, GSK, Avon, MF Global, Libor, Forex…. (Read Prof. Mike Koehler on FCPA alone!)In most organizations, these cultures rarely operate out in the open; they wheel and deal, threaten and steal in a gray fog of lies, tricks, distractions, diversions, and intimidation to evade detection. The deeper criminality can be hard to ferret out amid the “busyness” and even social outrages. However, bad people are bad all the time; even when they are pretending to be good, they are acting from a perspective of bad and still do bad things. They don’t necessarily see the bad they reveal. But the good interviewer will.
Leaders need to understand what it is they need to know and how to get to that knowledge, not just directly, but across personalities, technical fields, organizational cultures, and, increasingly, national cultures. They need to be able to question and probe without triggering defenses and deceiving themselves.
Yet who of leaders up and down the organization has ever actually been trained in interview technique? (Hint-having watched “Lie to Me” and reading about “micro-expressions” doesn’t really count.) How do you get to what you need to know?
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