"You’re the Villain Today”

It’s not a position that CEOs want to find themselves in, behind a wooden table facing more than a dozen angry lawmakers and being watched by millions of other people live. But that’s where Facebook’s 33-year-old founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg found himself this week, explaining how his firm, among other things, let the personal data of millions of people be used, without their knowledge, for political gain. 

Experts say the challenge for CEOs is to come out of the hearing without having their reputation—or that of their firm—any more damaged than it may already have been. To do so, experts say, CEOs may have to rely on skills and behaviors that they may not necessarily exercise in the course of their daily routines. “You need to make sure you know your stuff -- not just about your specific issue but about the politics,” says Nels Olson, Vice Chairman and Co-Leader of Korn Ferry’s Board and CEO Services practice. 

Zuckerberg is hardly the first corporate chief to find himself in this position, and he almost certainly won’t be the last. In the past decade, the bosses of banks, credit agencies, pharmaceutical firms and faced lawmaker scrutiny. It’s not the first time tech has faced the spotlight, either. Bill Gates, when he led Microsoft, and Apple’s Tim Cook have had to answer questions on multiple issues, including their firm’s business practices, taxes and worker conditions. 

Though it may seem obvious, a critical step is to take advice from the firm’s government relations team. Listening to the people who have pre-existing relationships with lawmakers is critical, Olson says. “You want to make sure that the lobbying team has thought about who is on the committee you’re testifying in front of,” Olson says. “Of the twenty people on that committee, you want to have allies that are going to make statements that are supportive.” 

Practicing and role-playing the testimony is also important, experts say, even if it puts them in a potentially awkward situation before they actually have to. “Generally, executives don't want to role-play to prepare because it's embarrassing. It's a human nature thing, regardless of the titles we have,” says Anne Gunderson, a Korn Ferry principal and executive coach.

Experts say it’s also important for CEOs to be conciliatory—not angry, sarcastic, or overly defensive. “Bluster is ill-received,” Gunderson says. Zuckerberg, in his written testimony, said that Facebook didn’t take abroad enough view of its responsibility to prevent itself from being used for harm. “That was a big mistake. It was my mistake, and I'm sorry," he said. However, just saying “I’m sorry,” isn’t enough to authentically show empathy. “The words won’t create or repair trust unless the body language matches it—facial expression, eyes, vocal tone, openness of posture. That gets even harder to demonstrate under pressure,” Gunderson says.

That empathy  or contriteness isn’t always what CEOs do. In late 2008, Lehman Brothers CEO Dick Fuld told a congressional committee that he felt “horrible” that his firm collapsed. But only moments later he said the investment bank’s demise, which triggered one of the hoariest moments of the financial crisis, wasn’t really the fault of anything he or the bank did, but a combination of government policies, short-selling investors, and the media.  

Perhaps even more critical, though, is that CEOs remember to be honest and transparent, offering constructive ideas rather than excuses. “In the 24/7 news cycle, if things trickle out, it lengthens the story,” Olson says. “It can become a tidal wave, and as a CEO that’s not what you want.” In 1994, bosses of seven cigarette companies told Congress that they did not believe nicotine was any more addictive than Twinkies. Even during the hearing lawmakers all but accused the CEOs of lying.

To be sure, not every CEO called in front of Congress is there for a tongue lashing. Last November, several CEOs spoke about how smaller firms can defend themselves from cyberattacks. But most of the time, when members of congress want CEOs in front of their committees, they want answers or, at a minimum, chastise CEOs to score political points. In that case, experts say, sometimes CEOs have to rely on a skill they may rarely use: sitting there and taking it. During his 2008 testimony, a lawmaker told Fuld, “If you haven't discovered your role, you're the villain today.” Fuld just stared back.

Authors

  • Anne Gunderson

    Principal

    Bio >
  • Nels Olson

    Vice Chairman and Co-Leader, Board & CEO Services, Korn Ferry

    Bio >