If a "nice guy" runs your company, you might be able to say whatever's on your mind in the boardroom and get away with it. But most successful CEOs aren't nice guys—they're very serious people, often edgy to the point of mania. At General Electric, where I spent 20 years as the speechwriter for hyperkinetic CEO Jack Welch, I watched dozens of executives torpedo their own careers by saying the wrong thing to the boss—not "politically incorrect" jaw-droppers, just maladroit or foolish remarks. Even if you work at a small company with 1 percent of GE's revenue, there are certain verbal blunders you should avoid at all cost:
"I'll have to get back to you on that." In other words, you don't know and didn't do your homework. Welch fired one vice president who gave that answer several times during a presentation. To avoid that fate, before an important pitch to the boss, conduct a "war game" or "murder board" with colleagues—and pick the most cynical, intelligent people you know. Ask them to sit through your presentation and then hit you with their best shots, asking the most off-the-wall, unfair questions they can think of. When you finally enter the bear's den, your ammunition should be data. Make sure you're loaded with it, so you can answer any question in mind-numbing detail. You might come across as brash, but Welch always admired people who didn't fold when challenged and "had a good story and the data to back it up."
Making fun of a corporate program. Yes, there are lots of vapid initiatives trotted out by marketing or PR or HR people: "Year of the Customer," or "Zero Mistakes," or "Zero Inventory," or "Zero Drinking at Lunch." And sadly enough, bad CEOs often buy in and pay these goofy ideas half-hearted lip service. Feel free to make fun of this stupid stuff—as long as you're willing to leave the company the next day.
Once at GE, the chief financial officer poked gentle, martini-fueled fun at a Welch initiative, from the podium at a company dinner. Welch fired him shortly thereafter.
I ran with most of what Welch promulgated, because it made sense to me. As a communicator, my job was to take it to another level—often to the point that Welch had to rein me in, calling me crazier than he was. This might sound like butt-kissing, but not to me. I believe in "signing on or signing out." If you don't believe in the corporate mission, either keep your mouth shut or leave.
Something you find funny. Skip the jokes, especially at the beginning of a presentation. I saw a young fast-riser start to come unglued during a presentation, after beginning with some humorous references to his subject. Welch made a dismissive hand gesture and then delivered the ultimate rebuff—he started doing his mail, opening envelopes and writing replies while the painful presentation continued. Afterward, Welch told me the presenter wasn't just awful, "he was flippant."
If you're lucky enough to get on the CEO's calendar, get advice ahead of time about what he's really interested in. Open his eyes to something he'll want to tell others about. As Welch once said: "You know what some kid told me today at the company meeting? We may be going in the wrong direction. Can't get it outta my mind. Gotta talk to her tomorrow...or maybe tonight."
"That can't be done." No CEO wants to hear that something he deems important is impossible. One year Welch wanted to make major, last-minute changes to the "CEO letter" that ran in the annual report. Two million copies of the book were already being printed, and I told him it was too late to make changes. The resulting explosion blew me out of his office. After recovering, I picked up the phone and stopped the presses, and we got his changes made the next day. GE's stock went up, but my career flat-lined for a while.
What should you do if the boss wants something that's really off the wall? I like to recall this scene from The Godfather: Part II: The boss wants somebody killed. His lawyer says, "Michael, you can't do this. It's impossible."