by Steve Adubato, PhD
Last week’s column explored how to communicate during a crisis, be it Hurricane Irene or a major screw up that is self-induced. One of the tips I offered discussed mistakes being made and the need for leaders to communicate in an up front and candid fashion. The key is to acknowledge the mistake as quickly as possible before anyone else exposes it and then make it clear how your organization is going to move forward. A cover-up is like playing Russian roulette communication.
But, that’s exactly what New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg did not do in the case of Stephen Goldsmith, his former deputy mayor, who was dismissed in early August. At the time, the mayor’s official communication said that Goldsmith was leaving to “pursue private-sector opportunities in infrastructure finance.” But when a governmental leader or a corporate executive communicates in such a blatantly dishonest fashion, nothing good is likely to happen. (Mr. Bloomberg has also built a massive corporate media empire in Bloomberg L.P.)
Fact is, that’s not why Stephen Goldsmith left the deputy mayor’s post. He left because he got involved in a violent domestic incident with his wife who pressed charges that ultimately put Goldsmith in jail for a couple of days. Even though Mrs. Goldsmith ultimately decided not to press charges, the damage was done. It was the kind of embarrassment, if gone public, that both Goldsmith and Bloomberg knew would make the deputy mayor’s tenure untenable.
Not only did the mayor communicate a false public reason for Goldsmith’s leaving, but his top aides communicated quietly to the media that Goldsmith was leaving because of his poor handling of a 2010 Christmas snow blizzard. When the real story came out, the mayor’s communication approach was worse. He went undercover and canceled his public appearances. He opted not to go on his weekly radio program on WOR 710. Then, when the public criticism got really bad, last Sunday the mayor chose to finally come clean, except he communicated in a defiant and clearly unapologetic fashion saying; “I make no apologies for either the fact that Mr. Goldsmith has left city service or for treating the Goldsmith family with basic decency as he left…the implication – the accusation – unfortunately made it untenable for him to continue to work for the city…”
Bloomberg also came clean on the winter blizzard snow job; “The snowstorm was a regrettable incident. We learned an awful lot from it. Hopefully the next time there’s a big storm we’ll be able to get the trucks and buses and cars off the streets and be able to plow more effectively and we’ll do a better job of coordinating and performing. But Mr. Goldsmith did not get dismissed for the snowstorm.”
It’s a funny thing about coming clean. It’s less effective when you are pushed into a corner than if you do so from the beginning. Simply put, WHEN you communicate is sometimes as important as WHAT you communicate. While difficult, the more proactive and up front you are, the faster you can hopefully move forward and get the issue behind you. Further, when a leader refuses to apologize when it is clear they were wrong, it communicates a degree of arrogance that many find unacceptable. Kudos to a leader who is loyal to his or her team members, but when that loyalty is in direct conflict with the leader’s larger responsibility to key stakeholders—be they shareholders in a company or constituents—the larger good usually wins out. When a leader refuses to accept this, their leadership becomes tenuous. This is an important lesson not just for Michael Bloomberg but for the rest of us who attempt to lead and manage organizations with many conflicting and challenging goals and demands.