“Every day a witch is burned in Washington and you do not want to be the witch.”
Democrat power lawyer Bob Barnett gave me that sage piece of advice when I was a newly minted U.S. Commissioner General for the World EXPO (formerly known as the World’s Fair). It was advice I took seriously as I reviewed the indictment of one of my predecessors and dove into an Inspector General report and financial files detailing previous U.S. Pavilions.
As Erik Larson described in his history of the Chicago World’s Fair, The Devil in the White City, the byzantine and bureaucratic rules governing the World’s Fairs had made the Commissioner General’s job notoriously difficult. It also created an environment that encouraged overspending and cutting corners.
With Barnett’s words in mind, I set out to run the U.S. Pavilion in Aichi, Japan quite differently. I focused on streamlining the process, in terms of money and time, and making it as efficient as possible. I’m proud to say our pavilion was delivered on time, under budget and free of legal questions. The experience taught me that there is no margin for error when operating in the public eye. I also realized there are four critical steps all leaders must take to avoid being burned at the stake.
First, do your research and dig into the files no one else wants to read. Ask the hard questions and find out what exactly went wrong in the past to avoid making the same mistakes. When running the EXPO, I quickly realized running a public-private endeavor out of the State Department that was taking place in expensive international cities was fraught with political tensions and complicated even further by complex procurement rules. By learning about these problems ahead of time, I was able to avoid them.
Second, the best way to avoid trouble is to act with the assumption that your smallest mistakes will be exposed. Both in government and in the world of Fortune 500 companies, leaders are held to a different standard. Leaders must assume that every action they take and every word they say will be dissected and analyzed by critics in the least flattering way.
Third, always consider if the action you’re taking passes the “sniff test.” Sometimes what you are doing may be technically legal, but might feel wrong or even immoral to a suspicious public. In today’s divisive political environment, people will look for any excuse to burn a leader at the stake. Are short-term benefits -- like free concert tickets or a ride on a private plane -- worth the risk? We all know the stories of politicians who were brought down by even the smallest infraction such as using government vehicles for personal use. Or in business, many companies have rushed announcements before fully understanding either the environment in which they were operating or the flaws in the process.
Fourth, give your critics a heads up before a major action. When the organization I lead, the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, decided to make a pledge to First Lady Michelle Obama that would ultimately cut 6.4 trillion calories from the marketplace, we spent the weeks before in conversations with critics and skeptics. Not only did the earlier conversations inform how we managed and prepared for the rollout, but they also gave our critics opportunities to provide more thoughtful answers and avoided irate blasts of outrage out of surprise.
The common thread running through all these steps is a commitment to transparency. Being open about the decisions you’re making and why you’re making them makes it far more difficult for anyone to later attempt to speculate about your actions and motives.
As my dad always told me, in every action you take you should always prepare yourself for inspection and inquiry, just don’t hand someone the ammunition to shoot you. Words to live by.