September 1, 2012

In business, we answer the questions every day

“Does anyone have any questions for my answers?” —Henry Kissinger

In politics, no one answers a question. Just watch any of the Sunday talk shows for 20 minutes and it will drive you nuts. Maybe I keep watching CBS's “Face The Nation” (and its competitors) in the hope I will stumble upon a politician or a political strategist who actually answers a question.

I know, call me naïve. But wouldn't you like just once to hear a person in politics answer the question posed clearly, honestly and forthrightly? Wouldn't you like to hear a candidate who is not too focused on “staying on message” to offer a real answer instead of talking points?

In business, we know this sort of thing will not fly. At least not for long. Sure, a glib CEO can keep his or her board of directors believing in slogans, clever generalizations and even vague promises for a little while. But ultimately the market speaks, and the numbers scream. We do not have the luxury of dancing around and “staying on message.” An executive ultimately must deliver straight answers and real results.

Politics is different, of course. The business of politics is often foreign to those who practice the politics of business. The politics of business only tolerate clever talk until the numbers come in. Then things get very real.

The business of politics tolerates nothing but clever talk. Its currency is exaggeration, inaccuracy and the shrewd turn of phrase. And repetition—they call it “message discipline”—works. Repeat something often enough and people tend to believe it.

Politicians are trained for this. You can look it up. Any number of media training books, websites and gurus will patiently explain, “Don't worry about the question you're asked, answer the question you wish you were asked.”

The candidates talk about each other in mind-numbing clichés. President Obama is a break-the-bank, job-killing spendthrift who wants to take away our freedoms. Romney is a waffling, indifferent, rich capitalist who made his money destroying companies and shipping jobs overseas.

We learn nothing useful from this kind of loose talk. And just as disturbing, the journalists who are in the best position to stop this evasion routinely let these politicians and their handlers get away with it.

The Sunday talk show hosts are trained as well—to be congenial, neither argumentative, nor badgering. That would slow down the show. “We have a lot of ground to cover this morning,” a host might say. A sure sign there will be little follow-up, or cross-examination to any of the questions asked. Instead, we get laughs and bonhomie. We get hosts and guests playing the same uninformative game.

A hundred years ago Finley Peter Dunne, a noted journalist of his day, proclaimed that journalists should “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” He also mentioned something about revealing the truth. This seems almost quaint today.

But wouldn't it be refreshing, even enlightening, if once in a while journalists would ask a tough question or two and then follow it effectively to get a real answer?

CEOs expect to be treated this way, and generally behave accordingly. Henry Kissinger, on the other hand, thought it was pretty funny. We do not.