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Case Study: High Tech CEOs and the United States Congress

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Introduction

The CEOs of Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google met with law makers in Washington DC and there are plenty of lessons for subject matter experts.

In July 2020, the United States Congress held a virtual hearing with the CEOs of four of America’s largest technology companies. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Apple’s Tim Cook, Google’s Sundar Pichai , and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg all attended to answer questions about allegations of their company’s anti-competitive and monopolistic practices. These four companies were accused of stealing intellectual property, stifling free speech, thwarting competition, manipulating markets, and much more.

So, the powerful Congressional Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust called these CEOs to Washington to answer some questions.

Occasionally during the five-and-a-half hour hearing the elected representatives put on a hint of friendliness, but some are actively seeking the destruction, or at least the dismantling, of these large companies. And they have the power to do it. Congress has a history of breaking up Big Railroads, Big Oil, Big Telecommunications, and others. They now have their sights on Big Technology. If it were not so then certainly Bezos, Cook, Pichai, and Zuckerberg would not have attended this meeting.

Of course, high stakes engagements are not just for powerful executives. Most subject matter experts who serve their companies conscientiously for an extended period will eventually be pulled into hostile and critically important meetings where they need to protect their companies. Typically, these meetings are not under oath with government officials and cameras rolling.  Instead, the most common high stakes confrontations are in private settings with customers, colleagues, or partners.

So, let’s take this opportunity to glean a few important lessons from this very public meeting between High Tech CEOs and the United States Congress.

Lesson #1: Know the Key Messages

Before the congressional hearing started all four of the CEOs knew what accusations were coming.  They may not have known the details of the questions, but they had a strong sense for what was in store. Early in the meeting Congressman David Cicilline summarized the government’s grievance:

[quote]

So, the problem as Mr. Cicilline describes it, is that consumers are stuck with bad options. (Oh sure, Representative Cicilline, I wish we could all go back to a time before Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. When we had so many great options.) All of the CEOs took issue with this characterization, as well they should have. But it was Jeff Bezos who tried the hardest to address the issue frontally. More than 18 times he talked about the benefits he feels Amazon has brought to consumers.

[quote]

One this subject, I think Bezos did well. Great SMEs don’t walk into high stakes meetings blind. They know as much as possible about what is coming and what their key messages will be.

Lesson #2: Challenge the Presumptions

After 45 minutes of housekeeping and opening testimony Congressman David Cicilline asked the first question of the hearing. It wasn’t so much a question as it was an accusation.

[quote]

Now, I have no idea what Pichai was thinking when he received this question but I know what I thought, “Wow, okay, hostility right out of the gate. This could get ugly. I then might have been tempted to respond with sarcasm “Thanks you for asking, let me tell you exactly why we steal from honest businesses. Are you serious?”

Instead, fortunately, although it takes him a second, Pichai gracefully challenges the characterization behind the congressman’s question.

[quote]

Yep, I challenge the characterization. Or, in other situations I challenge the presumptions.

So, when the questions become accusations great SMEs challenge the premise. If the foundation of the question is in error, then the question is baseless. Challenge the presumptions and the characterizations. It is the most polite and elegant way to disagree.

Lesson #3: Avoid the Minutiae

It can be tempting for SMEs who know a lot of details to talk about a lot of details. This behavior can work against you and often does. Many SMEs need to force themselves out of the details. It is almost always better to stick with a few important points than to wonder into the weeds.

Let’s look at one example.

Jerry Nadler is an experienced politician. He knows how to draw people into the details and keep them there. Concerned by Facebook’s purchase of Instagram, Representative Nadler had several questions for Mark Zuckerberg:

[quote]

Okay, stop if you don’t have the documents then, well you don’t have the documents so you don’t need to say anything else. But Zuckerberg knew a lot of the details about the Instagram deal, so he was willing to talk about the details. Remember, this is a simple yes or no question.

[quote]

You can do it Mark, Yes or no?

[quote]

At the end of the entire exchange the Nadler summed up his feelings.

[quote]

This is a trap that SMEs fall into time and time again. They know a lot of details and so they talk about a lot of details, even when those details are neither helpful nor needed. Avoid the minutiae.

Lesson #4: Stay Out of the Spotlight

A close companion to staying out of the minutiae is staying out of the spotlight. When you are in damage control, as these CEOs were, it’s typically a good idea to avoid drawing attention to yourself. Nothing good will come to Amazon, Apple, Facebook or Google if the CEOs are attracting the attention of law makers. The CEOs knew this going in and they stayed on their best behavior. They did not interrupt, even after being interrupted. They did not condescend, even after being belittled. And they did not argue, even when confronted and accused. In short, they stayed out of the spotlight.

One measurement for the spotlight might be the amount of time each of the CEOs spent answering questions during this hearing. With that yard stick Cook came out way ahead. Zuckerberg and Pachai both spent more than twice as much time in the spotlight answering questions than their counterpart at Apple. In fairness this is not something Zuckerberg and Pachai can fully control, but they all seemed to try to stay out of the spotlight.

[graphic]

If this is a good strategy in Washington then maybe, just maybe, it also applies elsewhere. When you or your company is in trouble or vulnerable don’t draw attention to yourself. Stay out of the spotlight.

Lesson #5: Don't Retaliate

When someone gets punched in the face, figuratively or literally, it can be tempting to punch back. But, retaliation by a SME is rarely rewarded. All four of the CEOs had plenty of chances to take retaliatory digs at the elected officials, but none of them did and I’ve got to believe that after 3 or 4 hours of questions like these some of them wanted to.

[multiple quotes]

Different people, obviously have different triggers, but there was one line of questions from Representative Greg Steube of Florida that might have set me off. As I see it Pachai could have answered the questions in at least three different ways. He could have retaliated which is completely the wrong approach under the circumstances.

Example retaliation: Nobody wants your stupid email? Congress has a 25% approval rating and you presume to lecture these companies about how to treat the American public? Seriously? It was congress that set the laws about email in 2003 and it is congress who explicitly exempted themselves from their own law. Of all people it is congress’s email that should be the most scrutinized. Nobody wants your stupid email.

But that retaliation would not have accomplished what these four CEOs and their companies need.

Fortunately, Pachai responded with the second option, which is with a much better tone.

[quote]

While Pachai’s response was OK. Okay being it didn’t get him into trouble. I think he could have done better.

Because Stuebe made the question personal. It was about him and his parents. Consequently, I think Pachai might have kept it personal. He might have made his response about Stuebe and his parents.

Example:  “Representative Stuebe, I can see how that email situation is troubling to you, and to your parents. They must be proud of your military service and your decisive victory in the last election. I assure you that at Gmail we are working hard to protect people like your parents from unwanted, malicious, and criminal email.”

Good job to Bezos, Cook, Pachai and Zuckerberg for not punching back when you had ample opportunities and plenty of justification to do so.

When dealing with hostile situations

  1. Know your key messages
  2. Challenge the Presumptions
  3. Avoid the minutiae
  4. Stay out of the spotlight
  5. Don’t retaliate

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