Arthur W. Page Society

Advising the CEO and The King’s Speech

While The King’s Speech was a great movie, it was also a great example of how to advise a CEO or other important leader. As the story unfolds, Lionel Logue, the King’s speech therapist, goes from the unwanted outsider to the trusted adviser through a process that dates back to Joseph and the Pharaoh. The relationship is based on trust, respect, a proven process, evidence-based advice and confidence. These are the same essential elements of advising a CEO, and all of them are illustrated as the movie unfolds.

Lionel teaches the King a few lessons in humility and self-respect. However, he also teaches all of us who get a chance to advise influential people just how to form that special relationship. The movie also underscores that just as important as having good advice is being able to deliver it in way that those you advise can hear it and use it.

Tony Blair said to me one day when planning out his third re-election campaign – “I feel like I am standing in front of a locked door without a key.” The point of that process was to help him find the key to his most difficult problem. And that is what Lionel did – he did not solve the King’s problem; rather, he helped the King find the fortitude within himself to overcome the obstacles standing in his way.

“In here, it’s better if we’re equals”

Early on in the movie, Lionel refuses to take the King as a patient unless he accepts certain ground rules, starting with using first names. Of course, the King is appalled. How dare a commoner make such a request! Soon, however, he realizes that Lionel won’t budge. Using first names, in Lionel’s view, was essential to creating a relationship of trust and mutual respect. The King relents, and Lionel memorably calls him Bertie, the nickname used by family members – those people he knows and trusts best. Lionel didn’t budge because he knew if he couldn’t win a few minor battles in the beginning, he would never be able to win the ones that truly counted.

You can’t begin to add value to your CEO until you establish ground rules and set expectations. That starts with some respect and equality. But the rules only apply “in here” – in the small space where advice is needed and sought. Accomplished people don’t need advice in all parts of their life – but often they can use help in one or two critical areas that are holding them back or have become problematic. Forget about giving Einstein advice on physics or Gates on software; they would pound you into the ground. But maybe helping them write a speech or fill out their taxes are very different matters. So no adviser is ever an equal to the client, but in those areas of needed expertise, the relationship has to be based on the kind of mutual respect Lionel establishes in the movie.

“My castle, my rules”

Lionel didn’t just insist upon first names, he also insisted on his process. Like any good doctor, he can’t let the patient dictate the treatment, or the result is likely malpractice. I often see clients invent and often demand to use unproven, invalidated processes based on fancy. A key part of being a successful adviser is bringing a process that works to allow the principal to hear and understand the rational basis for the advice.

From the beginning, you have to get the CEO to agree to try your process for a change. In my case, I am research based. I use the research to narrow down potential solutions. However, I’ll sometimes get a client who says let’s skip the research or who instantly wants to dictate the methods and solutions to the problem. These situations are problematic for me because research is my process – it’s my expertise. And so, it’s no coincidence that some of my most successful engagements have been when the CEO agreed to the research and came to understand later why it was so important.

The ''aha'' moment

In The King’s Speech there was a lot of back and forth as they start and stop the treatment. Lionel and the King did not have a successful relationship until the “aha” moment that comes when unlikely advice turns out to be correct. That is the essential element to moving from just a few lessons to a trusted adviser role. In the movie, Lionel has the King try reading while loud music drowns out his ability to hear himself. It certainly seems whacky and unorthodox, but when the King plays the record later, he hears himself speaking without a stutter. That instantly convinced him there was something to Lionel’s methods. Once that happened, the process moved in earnest at breakneck pace. Gaining trust and moving the relationship to a higher and more valued level takes counterintuitive advice, such as when, as their political adviser, I told President Clinton to target the influential, yet unidentified, “Soccer Moms” in 1996, or recommended that Hillary Clinton take her senate campaign to upstate New York, rather than focusing it principally in New York City.

The crowning achievement in the movie for both the King and Lionel is the wartime speech, representing the height of a trusted adviser relationship in a do or die situation that would have caused massive problems had it gone wrong.

I sometimes don’t know how the clients I am working with can possibly stand up to the stress. They are often facing indictment, public humiliation, near certain electoral defeat or other pretty dire circumstances. The final role of the adviser, which I think Lionel accomplished exceedingly well, is to provide a sense of can-do optimism in the face of dire circumstances. That alone may not work, but without it those we are trying to help will never be able to take their best shot at overcoming the adversity that has come their way.

Mark Penn
Worldwide CEO

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