I was just reading a blog post on David Maister’s BLOG (David is one of the world’s experts on managing professional service firms) about a time he was caught off guard when a CEO publicly questioned his integrity. How should he have responded? What he did was to remain silent until the discussion continued. That tactic scares the bejeezez out of me.

He suggests that a consultant’s nonverbal response is essential and advocates practicing non-silence responses until they can be delivered smoothly. I disagree. Here’s what I wrote:

If the CEO hasn’t bought in to your presence, the meeting won’t accomplish much, so I would be willing to change gears to address the problem. Silence seems way, way too risky. It’s the one response where I have no control over or knowledge of what’s being communicated.

You seem to want to respond from a place of integrity. Rehearsed responses, as you note above, aren’t integrity. Your intentions may be good, but integrity is being true to your real responses. If you’re caught off guard, a high-integrity response could be, “Wow. I’m taken aback by that comment and unsure of your intention. Could you help me understand?”

You interpreted the comment as questioning your ethics. Maybe you were wrong; maybe the CEO was just stating the truth as he saw it. If so, add it to the discussion. “A change recommendation will give me business, so I may be biased. Others here may have biases for or against change. How can we as a group insure our solution isn’t unduly influenced by those?”

Or, if he was right (and you never say outright that he wasn’t, only that you were offended), you could stay in integrity by removing the conflict of interest, “Let’s agree here and now that change management consulting will go to other consultants.”

You could also defend your integrity and bring it into the discussion, saying courteously, “That’s not how I work. If, however, you fear consultants at your firm give advice for the sole purpose of generating new fees, perhaps we should add that to our strategy discussion?”

At worst, they’ll ask you to leave. But maybe this consulting CEO considers biased recommendations perfectly good business practice. Wouldn’t you want to know that? It’s relevant to the strategy discussion and may be relevant to whether you want to keep them as a client. It could also suggest he doesn’t know how to establish a trusting client/consultant relationship, which becomes another topic for the strategy discussion.

From your discussion, I get the impression you were more afraid of losing your fee than of standing up for your integrity. Which, by the way, means that the CEO’s implied “You’re willing to sacrifice integrity for income” might have hit home because it was true, as you demonstrated by sacrificing your self-integrity to preserve the income from that client.

The problem here is that you weren’t confident in the moment. Why not take some assertiveness courses, and/or improvisation classes, so you learn to generate confident, flexible responses on the fly? Joining a comedy improv troupe–which I did as a hobby–was possibly more useful than my Harvard MBA in terms of usable business skills. I know I can always respond with confidence, and then I need only concentrate on my integrity, knowing the nonverbal part will be there when needed.

And P.S. this stuff IS learnable. I was a socially inept MIT geek for years. If I can do it, anyone can do it.

Caught off-guard by the CEO? Try integrity. You mi…

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