Manage Your Message

Posted 10.01.2008

Last week,  I wrote a couple of posts about leadership lessons from Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson.  Specifically, I was impressed with his bias for action under pressure and for collaborating with peers and other constituencies to develop solutions to the financial crisis.  Even after this week’s legislative train wreck, I still hold those points of view about Paulson.

That said, there are a number of lessons we can learn from things Paulson didn’t do so well or, in one case I can think of, didn’t do at all.  At the risk of oversimplifying a complex situation, I’d argue that Paulson paid little or no attention to something all leaders need to do – managing your message.

New_york_wall_street The $700 billion package that has been so hotly debated is routinely referred to in the news media, on talk radio and by politicians themselves as the “Wall Street bailout.”  Most analysts believe that when a majority of members of the House voted against the plan this week it was because of the overwhelming number of e-mails and phone calls they received from constituents who were outraged over bailing out the “fat cats” on Wall Street.

Main-street-street-sign It makes me wonder how things would have gone if Paulson and other leaders had, a couple of weeks ago, defined the terms of the debate by calling it something like the “Main Street rescue plan.”  The point of the plan, after all, is to repair the credit markets that are essential to a healthy economy for all Americans.  That’s not just a Wall Street issue, it’s a Main Street issue.   By not seizing the communications high ground, Paulson allowed others to steal the march.

Years ago, one of my favorite business books was Control Your Own Destiny or Someone Else Will — an early report on how Jack Welch managed GE.  I’m reminded of that title today.  By not controlling his own message, Paulson allowed others to control it instead.  In times of great change and crisis, leaders have to pay attention to the selling of the plan, not just the creation of the plan.

What’s on your radar screen right now that requires some strategic message management?