Exposure and honesty in three continents

Chicago Sunday 3Exposure, that’s what we all fear. Being caught on camera when you haven’t had time to think about what to say, let alone compose your face, is hard for everyone, from business school students to charity executives. It’s hard to watch yourself back and know just how much better you could have handled it. But it’s easy to learn a few simple techniques to make the most of whatever time you do get to prepare.

So when the iOpener Institute asked me this spring to work with students from an international business school on three campuses in London, Chicago and Hong Kong, it was a challenge I was keen to accept. Working across three continents in three months was a chance to road test the media skills course I’d developed, drawing on my skills as a leadership coach and my background as an international journalist. Serendipity was certainly at play, I’d worked for the BBC in London, the US and Hong Kong.

“Oh I hate seeing myself on camera!”  “I hate my voice!”  “I look really shifty, like I don’t want to answer the question”. These were the typical responses from delegates I put on the spot about their company, their salary or their trustworthiness. Few had done media interviews before, but all had faced tricky board or investor meetings. And they knew anyone with ambition has to understand how a leader handles the pressure. Or can fail to, as United Airlines boss Oscar Munoz demonstrated last month.

Among the mix of students on each campus, I met bankers, consultants, doctors, accountants, and above all entrepreneurs. I was flattered that one Chicago participant carved out the time to take my course even though his new website based business was going live the very next day. The tips and the feedback were worth it, he said, he knew he needed to connect more emotionally with his new fashion business customers.

The students had been together for a year so were familiar with their cultural differences. But I was fascinated to see what happened when I paired a brash Hong Konger with a polite South Korean, or a direct American with an even politer Brit. I was delighted by their openness with each other about what they did well and what they needed to start doing better, a level of honest feedback that’s extremely rare back in the workplace. I got insights I don’t get anywhere else too: on the Hong Kong course, we were talking about a prominent Chinese businessman who’d been arrested that month at his hotel. The brash Hong Konger asked a Shanghai based colleague how he’d respond if that happened to his CEO, he said he’d simply shut the company website down and say nothing. Not what I’d recommend, but I could understand his caution.

I’d been wary myself about teaching leaders how to work with the media: it’s hard for journalists to get access let alone answers from many businesspeople, who I believe should be as accountable as publicly funded government bodies or charities. But I found my students soon understood how they could build trust by being open to challenge and more confident about their story.

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