Coping with the Hot-Seat: lessons from Rebekah Brooks


Coping with the Hot-Seat: lessons from Rebekah Brooks

  • By Ian Bradley
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In my practice as an executive coach, clients often come to see me in a crisis.  Frequently, that crisis stems from a superior’s criticism of that client’s on the job performance.  Whether it was a failure to meet specified sales targets or a budgetary over-run, defending oneself successfully is something of an art.

Today’s televised testimony of Rebekah Brooks in front of the UK parliamentary committee investigating nefarious practices under her watch at the News of the World, NOTW, made for interesting viewing.  Setting aside what Ms. Brooks might, or might not have ordered, approved or known, there are interesting lessons that can be drawn from her performance.   Some of the lessons might be appropriate for people facing their own particular hot-seat inquiry.

Time and time again, Rebekah Brooks steered the conversation away from the alleged transgression to what she and others were doing to remedy the situation. When apologies were issued, many related to her personal frustration with the speed of the process of retribution.  Repeatedly, she attempted to seek committee endorsement of this common ground. Although we are adversaries -she seemed to be saying – we can at least agree upon the need to fix the problem.

A variation of this strategy can be attempted in a business context.  Admit the fault, or not, and then speedily and sincerely move to what you are doing to improve things.

The ex-editors testimony was also fascinating for its forays from concrete to conceptual thinking.  When it served her well, Ms. Brooks remained with the actual events; the more details about whom she met or employed, the better.  However, there was adamant refusal to take a natural leap of generalization into the conceptual. In other words, no number of specific examples of phone-hacking practices allowed her to made any general statement about the operating culture at NOTW.

At other times, generalizations abounded.  Seemingly criminal practices of the News of the World were placed in a general category of practices common to a long list of cited newspapers.

Her testimony played both sides – under my watch, there were isolated bad practices that didn’t form a pattern that nonetheless existed in the industry.

This is clearly a risky stratagem for those being grilled by a superior in a workplace setting.  There is some obvious benefit to the hot seat occupant to contain the criticism to the precipitating incident, and hopefully not, incidents.  The generalization that most bosses make is one of concluding that the events are not isolated but reflective of a unitary personality flaw in the employee.  Problems x, y and z are quickly attributed to putative traits such as laziness, carelessness or low motivation. The only defense is details, specifically providing situational details that framed the employee’s thinking and constrained the available courses of action.

The style or delivery of these details is equally important.  Rebekah was firm, assertive but respectful.  She peppered her comments with kudos acknowledging the investigating committee’s experience, prior knowledge and difficult mandate.  Although quietly properly cast as a villain, she often attempted to align herself with the committee on specific issues.  Lining up against convicted pedophiles or working hard with the committee member to fight against the obscurities of her own memory were just two of many examples of this attempt to break the them-versus-me theme.

Very often I encounter employees who too readily admit fault based upon the faint hope that their personal contrition will yield a similar forgiveness from management. Often, the opposite occurs; managers sense vulnerability and attack even harder.

Of course, there were many aspect of Ms. Brooks’ testimony that I wouldn’t advocate, such as, her immediate foray into issues that did not even come close to answering the posed questions and her many unprompted and irrelevant asides about events. Nonetheless, Rebeka Brooks also displayed many self-defense strategies that any embattled employee could learn from.