Friday, September 11, 2015

Briefing the boss - when economy and precision of words are important

Have you ever had to brief a Chief Executive Officer, or some high official? If you have, you know that your briefing has to be succinct, since the CEO is concerned with all sorts of stuff.

Let's go one better - have you ever had to interrupt a Chief Executive Officer during some other event to convey a very important message? At that point, you have to use extra care.

Which brings us to an elementary school in Florida at the beginning of the school year in 2001. It's a big event - the President is visiting a classroom. And since this is the Education President, this photo-op is a very important one. Both the school and the White House want this to go off without a hitch. The kids are going to read, and the President is going to observe.

Meanwhile, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card has a little problem. You see, before the kids started reading to the President, the White House party had heard about a plane crash at the World Trade Center - a tragic accident, or so it seemed. But after Bush went into the classroom, Card learned that a second plane had hit the World Trade Center.

And believe it or not, my first thought was UBL, Osama Bin Laden. And I knew that I had to tell the president.

You know, that is one of the difficult tasks that a chief of staff has - does the president need to know? This one was easy to answer. Yes the president needed to know.

But how? The kids were in the middle of their reading drill, and regardless of what was going on, a Chief of Staff can't just pull the President out of the room. Card decided what he would do.

...I made the decision to send in two facts and make one relatively obvious editorial comment. And I wanted to do nothing to invite a question or start a dialogue.

Now if Bush had been sitting in the Oval Office and Card was down the hall, Card could have just presented the facts and let the President editorialize to his heart's content. But due to the particular situation, that wouldn't work in this case.

I opened the door to the classroom. And I walked up to the president and leaned over and whispered onto his right ear. "A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack."

Card then left the President. Under the circumstances, Card couldn't exactly unfurl a banner saying "Mission Accomplished," but he could have.

But even with the care that Card took to convey the news, the other people in the room sensed something:

Teacher Kay Daniels was sitting next to Bush and knew something was amiss when Card came out of the adjoining classroom and approached the president. Everything about the day was so choreographed, and that wasn't supposed to happen.

Even the second graders sensed something.

One kid described his face as (like) he had to use the bathroom.

But there was another element that was present - some people in the back of the room. While the students and the teacher didn't know what was going on, the people in the back of the room did.

"At the back of the room, reporters were on their cell phones. They were getting the same message I got, which meant a lot of people would be watching my reaction to this crisis," [President Bush] said. "So I made a decision not to jump up immediately and leave the classroom. I didn't want to rattle the kids. I wanted to project a sense of calm."

So the kids read, Bush listened, and the nation watched. Eventually the reading ended, the photo op was done, and Bush left the classroom and barked an order.

"Get the FBI director on the phone."

Card knew that he'd ask that.

Now it is extremely unlikely that I will ever have to convey such a message to a Chief Executive Officer. But the dramatic episode does remind you that economy and precision of words are of the utmost importance.
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