In this extract from his latest book The Nine Types of Leader, renowned city journalist James Ashton reflects on that ultimate piece of Chief Executive media relations – the press interview.
Over more than 20 years of journalism I have accrued hours and hours in the company of chief executives. Sometimes fleetingly, for the best part of an hour across a boardroom table, in a recording studio or on a conference stage; sometimes socially too, getting to know them gradually over a long period at parties, breakfasts and dinners that in normal times oil corporate life in London and beyond. I hope it adds up to a detailed understanding of what makes the boss class tick, their ambitions and fears, how they got where they are – and how they stay there.
In journalism, the power lies in opinion. It is why the populist Fox News thrived in the United States even before the Trump era and the divisive topic of Brexit left the BBC somewhat tongue-tied in its pursuit of editorial balance. Newspapers are viewspapers in which columnists hold sway, purveying thought-provoking, sometimes pungent views from beneath statesmanlike picture bylines. I like writing those too but must admit I have always loved conducting interviews, where the subject must obviously be the star and granted sufficient oxygen to speak.
Very early on in my career I remember journeying up to glamour-free Luton to the north of London to interview Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou, his workspace a tiny perch at the end of a table in an aircraft hangar from where he masterminded the European expansion of the budget airline easyJet and was now turning his attention to other ventures.
Another formative encounter was with Howard Schultz, the Starbucks tycoon, soon after he acquired the Seattle Coffee Company that gave the chain a bridgehead into the UK. Schultz appeared captive that day in a large armchair at the back of one of his coffee outlets as a production line of journalists processed past. It got me thinking about the nature of business, what drives the leaders behind these brands, and why they wanted to tell me about it.
Sports journalists have their star strikers and Olympic athletes, political writers obsess over the activities of ministers, senators, heads of state and the ideas of policy wonks. For me it has always been a fascination with chief executives, those leaders of giant workforces – often larger than a stadium full of fans or a country’s population – that generate great wealth, steward famous brand names or vital causes.
I soon understood my role. If I didn’t ask the question I wanted answering then nobody would.
At the age of 18, in a late-night interview conducted for my local hospital radio station in West Yorkshire, I still regret not having the bravado to ask the comedian Sir Ken Dodd about his tax affairs when I had the chance. More bite was needed –and more preparation. Several years later, I resolved never to show up as unready as a journalist with whom I shared a slot for a joint interview – itself a disastrous format. His opening gambit to the chief executive across the table was: “So, what do you do?” Which is the sort of small talk entrée you might expect the British royal family to trot out.
The joy of an interview comes in three stages. There is the before: pulling apart a beautifully botoxed CV, plump with superlatives and vaunting achievement that, together with a read-around and a ring-around, acts as a useful guide to where the real story lies. There is the after: crafting 1,300 or so words that sum up the subject, with some emphasis on finding a colourful three-paragraph drop intro to entice readers in. It is the meat in the sandwich I enjoy most: part conversation, part joust. The sights, the sounds, the figuring out: where am I, who is this person, why do they deserve to feature in my publication?
Efforts to sanitize the modern press interview have made great progress. These summit meetings are conceived to take place in bland rooms with heavily supervised chief executives offering up bland answers decorated with management speak, acronyms and key messages. And yes, sometimes they are so predictable that some write-ups could be produced before actual contact is made. The journalist is left to feel complicit in a set piece, a carefully choreographed decoration of an illustrious executive career.
But only sometimes.
The barricades erected by corporate imagemakers are an invitation to delve deeper and press harder, to ditch the bland in favour of the chinks of light shone on a leader’s motivations and upbringing. Rather than a narrow prism, an interview properly handled is an opportunity to discover plenty about an individual’s accumulated experience, through their answers but also through their body language, the location, even the time of day.
The bosses who gamely turned up at my office wanted to be helpful or needed a favour; the leader who reluctantly assented to a chat during a noisy awards dinner that sent my Dictaphone into overdrive clearly didn’t give a damn. Only once have I had to call back for a follow-up chat when I realized too late that a leader had beaten me. As it stood, he was just too boring to commit to print.
Many chief executives opt not to put themselves through the ordeal. For some, media relations activity is all risk, no reward. How presumptuous to be plastered across a full page, adorned with a portrait photo. How fatuous to contribute to a sidebar detailing their favourite movie, particular family relationships, leisure pursuits and what they had for breakfast.
Such a mindset suggests that the interviews I have collected must put across a lop-sided view of leadership. Rather than a broad spread of bosses, here is a subset of the most talkative, egotistical or pliant.
Certainly, media exposure is no corollary of success. Some terrible chief executives talk themselves up in the hope of polishing their legacy, while many good ones choose to say nothing. ‘It’s not about me, I’m just part of the team,’ is a familiar but specious excuse for not finding the time in their hectic diary to engage.
Of course, those leaders that play the game want to push their cause. They might also want to correct misapprehensions, project a particular image, contribute to the national conversation or – as I have often found to be the case even in these ultra-cautious times – agree to be interviewed simply because they have been asked.
Rather than being out-and-out self-promoters –although some surely are –these are the enlightened ranks of the boss class. They understand that communication is a key part of leadership, whether running a tiny, low-profile widget maker or a world-famous corporation like Coca-Cola. Giving an interview is to offer out the chance to have your performance, personality and leadership style scrutinized. The three are inextricably linked.
Such scrutiny can be done at a distance by studying the familiar corporate metrics –underlying earnings, return on equity, total shareholder return, carbon footprint, customer and staff satisfaction –or gathering views from shareholders and former colleagues. City analysts, academics and historians cover much of this territory. Similarly, chief executives can transmit their thoughts directly to staff or the wider world via social media or company intranet without the risk of being misinterpreted.
But that route fails to recognize what a rigorous media still offers. At a time when authenticity is perhaps the most prized leadership attribute, here is a credibility filter that rewards success, combats mistrust, highlights challenges and shows up fakers and failures, often in their own words. That drive for keeping it real could be why up-close, unstructured, sometimes unguarded media such as podcasting is riding high. It is another test to be put through, like a job interview with no appointment at the end.
James Ashton was Executive Editor of the Evening Standard and City Editor of the Sunday Times. His book The Nine Types of Leader is out now and his podcast Leading with James Ashton is available on Apple and Spotify (Leadingpod.com).