We’ve all said things we come to regret. What sounds like a good idea at the time can turn into “What was I thinking?” in hindsight. In a digital culture where sound bites, emails and tweets can go viral overnight and live forever, one snafu can turn into a full-blown crisis.
This presidential election cycle has been full of cringe-worthy gaffes. Hillary Clinton’s latest is destined to be classic: “You can put half of Trump supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables,” she said, meaning those who are “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic.”
When she tried to walk it back the next day, she said, “I regret saying ‘half’ – that was wrong,” leaving cynics to ponder whether she actually meant to say “all,” instead. That’s not how you defuse a crisis; that’s how you perpetuate it.
Whether that turns out to be Clinton’s version of Mitt Romney’s “47%” comment — that 47% of people would inevitably vote to re-elect President Obama because they’re entitled and dependent on the government — remains to be seen. Many, including Romney, saw that as a turning point that ultimately led to his defeat in 2012.
Every political and business leader experiences crises; they simply come with the territory. But the crises that often do the most damage are the ones we create ourselves. It’s those unforced errors that can come back to haunt us if we don’t take them seriously.
We all make mistakes, and we all have the power to make them better or worse after the fact. As jazz great Miles Davis once said, “When you hit a wrong note, it’s the next note that makes it good or bad.” Inherent in every self-made disaster is the potential for redemption. A little humility goes a long way.
Take Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel, for example. In May 2014, things were looking good for the 23-year-old Stanford grad: he had raised $163 million from some of Silicon Valley’s top venture capital firms and reportedly turned down a $3 billion cash offer from Facebook to acquire his ephemeral messaging startup.
But that all changed when Gawker site Valleywag released a string of emails from Spiegel’s frat days that included graphic references to sex, drugs and alcohol abuse. Instead of making excuses or simply ignoring the firestorm of bad press, he swiftly owned up to it, issuing a sincere and unconditional apology:
“I’m obviously mortified and embarrassed that my idiotic emails during my fraternity days were made public. I have no excuse. I’m sorry I wrote them at the time and I was jerk to have written them. They in no way reflect who I am today or my views towards women.”
That was exactly the right thing to do.Spiegel didn’t sidestep. He didn’t wait. He got to keep his job and Snapchat has since emerged as a social media powerhouse. It’s raised $2.6 billion to date, carries a valuation of $20 billion and is reportedly planning a 2017 IPO.
What makes that particular example so stunning isn’t just the level of maturity Spiegel displayed but its rarity, even among experienced executives who should know better. Countless stories come to mind but one stands apart, particularly in terms of its dramatic impact on a company that once dominated the smartphone market: BlackBerry, formerly known as Research In Motion (RIM).
When Apple launched the first iPhone in 2007, RIM’s co-founders were caught completely by surprise by its groundbreaking multi-touch display, web browser and third-party apps. They could not understand how Apple managed to pack so much functionality into a single device. But they never took the competitive threat seriously, either publicly or internally. And that cost them the market.
Co-CEO Jim Balsillie dismissed the iPhone’s potential at the time, saying, “It’s kind of one more entrant into an already very busy space with lots of choice for consumers. But in terms of a sort of a sea-change for BlackBerry, I would think that’s overstating it.” His partner, Mike Lazaridis, was similarly unimpressed, “Try typing a web key on a touchscreen on an Apple iPhone, that’s a real challenge,” he said, “You cannot see what you type.”
For the next four-and-a-half years, the two executives displayed nothing but abject denial as Apple and Google all but put their company out of business. After destroying $70 billion of shareholder value, Balsillie and Lazaridis finally stepped down. On his first conference call, their hand-picked successor, Thorsten Heins, said, “I don’t think there is some drastic change needed.” Investors disagreed; the stock dropped another 8.5% that day.
It’s painful to look back and see how much our unforced errors cost us, especially the ones we failed to own up to and take seriously. Save yourself the trouble and deal with them proactively. Crisis management may not be rocket science, but for far too many leaders, it may just as well be.