CHESTER BURGER

1999 Interview for Jon J. Metzler's book on Management Consulting

 

Chester Burger Remembered :: VIDEO: Chester Burger Memorial, May 7, 2011 :: VIDEO: Chet Burger discusses the earliest days of TV news [New York University, March 2, 2010] :: Truth to Power: A tribute to PR pioneer and critic, Chet Burger :: New York Civic Leader Earns Highest Air Force Public Service Award :: About Chester Burger :: Career Overview :: USAF General, Chief of Staff Norton A. Schwartz Salutes Chet Burger :: Bringing Business and Consumers Closer Together :: Abraham Lincoln: Master Persuader :: How To Meet The Press :: Jesus, the Communicator :: Sooner Than You Think: Technology Pulling the World Together :: Public Opinion Is Decisive :: October 23, 2009: Ten Years Into the Future :: 1999 Interview for Jon J. Metzler's book on Management Consulting :: Leading Change :: Chet Burger celebrates his 81st birthday :: Lifetime Experiences in Dealing with Public Opinion and Public Relations Management

Edward L. Bernays
Chester Burger
Carl R. Byoir
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Why Two Turnarounds Later, I Decided to Run My Own Business

In 1960, I was hired as president of McCann-Erickson's public relations firm. It was the first time I had ever run a corporation. When I arrived, I found a very sick operation. It was losing a quarter of a million dollars a year, which at that period and in the scale of public relations budgets, was an awful lot of money. In two years, I turned it around and it became very profitable. I learned a lot about how to manage. So it was a very valuable education to me. At this point, I was fired. There were internal political factors, maneuvering, that, even in retrospect, were beyond my control or my ability to influence.

     “...when I turned a profit, my share of the dollars quickly became very substantial. That didn't make the owner very happy.”

But at just that same moment, I learned that one of McCann's clients was looking for a president. They knew my work from McCann, and they offered me the job as president. I had no other job offer to choose from, so I took it. And again it was a very sick corporate situation. The company was in imminent danger of bankruptcy. I walked into it knowingly. The company was losing money each day.

The owners "generously" offered me an attractive profit sharing plan because there was no profit for me to share. It cost the owner nothing to offer me a share of what didn't exist. Between 1962 and 1964, I succeeded in turning the company around, returning it to profitability. Well, when I turned a profit, my share of the dollars quickly became very substantial. That didn't make the owner very happy.

In the end, I decided there would be no future for me working for somebody else who owned the company. I was a "hired-hand president," so I took my profits and left and decided to try to run my own consulting business. This was more than 40 years ago.

I considered my past experience. First, it had been in public relations. Second, it was in management, because I had been running a very sizeable corporation. And I also liked the idea of consulting. Public Relations means many things to many people. For example, if I say to you "public relations" you'd probably think of publicity or promotion. I never did any of that. My involvement as president of McCann-Erickson's public relations firm principally consisted of talking to clients with problems and suggesting solutions, and I loved it.

What I didn't know when I began my firm was an answer to the basic question: could I sustain myself selling advice, or would I have to do operational work? "Operational work" is a euphemism for publicity and promotion. For example, would I have to turn to writing brochures or running publicity campaigns to survive? Implementation was the very thing I didn't want to do. Finally, I figured that the marketplace would settle the question for me.

“All we did was sell advice...”

I opened my doors on December 1, 1964 as Chester Burger & Co. Inc. My wife was the "& Co., Inc." Twenty years later, in '84, I sold the firm to one of my partners and I became an employee of the firm for a four-year transition period until '88. I retired totally on November 30, 1988. During that 24-year period, our firm never did any "operational work." We never involved ourselves in publicity or promotion. Not that there's anything wrong with publicity and promotion. It's just that that wasn't where my abilities or interests lay. All we did was sell advice, and we survived just fine. At the peak, we totaled 22 people, which is not bad if all you're doing is selling advice.

Clients: 33 Years without a Contract

In 1955, I began as a consultant to the AT&T company. I retired from active consulting in 1988. So, when I retired, I had been a consultant to AT&T for 33 years, either personally or through my company. And as far as I know, that is the longest consultant relationship the corporation ever had with anybody.

What's interesting about it was that I never at any time had a written contract with them. We were never paid a retainer of any kind. I don't say I wouldn't have liked to have received a monthly check. I would have loved to have had a steady income, especially in the early years when we were struggling to survive.

The chairman or the president would call me and say, "Hey, I have something I want to talk to you about. Could you come on down?" And I'd go down to company headquarters at 195 Broadway, and spend some time with him. We talked about the problem, and after we were finished, at the end of the month, I'd send a bill for the time spent, charged at an hourly rate. And it was always paid promptly. It went on like that for 33 years.

Sometimes a prospective client would say, "Okay, we want to hire you. How do you work?" And I'd tell them, "If you have a contract you want to send me, fine, send it along and I'll sign it." And they'd say, "Don't you have a standard agreement?" And I'd reply, "No. We'll write one if you want one, but we don't need it. If you don't like us, you can fire us, and that's all there is to it."

     “...you don't depend on contracts, you depend on the trust of your client. If he doesn't trust you, you can forget it..”

I know that now this probably sounds terribly naive. But it worked for me. I can recall only two instances over my long career where a client wasn't happy with our work. In both cases, I remember saying to them, "If you're not satisfied with what we did, if you don't feel you received good value, then don't pay the bill. Just forget about it." In one case, they paid the bill anyway, apparently because they felt we had given advice in good faith and they trusted us. And in the other case, as I recall, they paid us less than the full amount. But whatever it was, I left it up to them. A lot easier than litigation.

That reflects an attitude that was basic to my thinking: you don't depend on contracts, you depend on the trust of your client. If he doesn't trust you, you can forget it. There's no relationship. And the point is that you've got to earn and deserve that trust.

Subjective Reality versus Objective Reality

I think this is the most important point that I can make. I think 99 1/2% of all consultants give all their attention to what I call objective reality, meaning how to help the client solve a particular problem. Some consultants are very good. Some are fair. Some are no good at all. But most are pretty good. They really do know how to help. They have particular professional skills to help the client.

In my experience, where many fail is the subjective part of the relationship. It's not that they lack the ability to help a client. They do help. But they pay no attention at all to the personal quality of their relationship with a client.

Here's what I mean. Suppose you asked me to criticize your work, and I began criticizing it. Give me the benefit of the doubt and let's assume that my criticism was really good, really insightful and constructive. How are you going to feel? You're going to resent it like hell. You're going to become defensive. You feel under attack. So you might tell me that I don't know what I'm talking about. Or you're going to feel stupid — "Why didn't I think of that? He must be smarter than I am." And so it's a no-win situation.

So again, assuming that it was good advice, the client will resent the fact that I thought of something that he didn't. Also, he's going to feel dependent upon me because I gave him an answer to a problem for which he didn't have an answer.

So there's an ambivalence to the relationship. There's both respect and appreciation for the help I'm giving him, and simultaneously, he resents the fact that he had to come to me to get it. I think this is at the heart of the problems that arise in consulting relationships.

“You” was a bad word. It was always “us.”

So what's the solution? First and foremost, the answer for me is to be intensely aware of how the client will feel if I give him the "right" answer. Secondly, I need to be aware that my client is absolutely no different from me. He doesn't like to be criticized. We're all that way.

So the consultant's dilemma is that on one hand, if I don't tell him the absolute truth, I have no value. I'm a phony. But, on the other hand, if I do tell him the truth, I must find a way to let him "save face." I need to find a way to let him psychologically accept the criticism I'm giving him, and not become defensive or resistant. That's where most consultants fail.

The client might tell me of some bad business or personnel decision he had made that caused the problem. I have no value to him or his company unless I tell him truthfully that it was an incorrect decision. But I've also got to make sure that he doesn't feel embarrassed or defensive. I want him to accept counsel to change the failed decision. So I might say to him, "Well, of course it was a mistake. But look, at the time, you couldn't have foreseen that. You did the best you could under the circumstances. Looking back with 20/20 hindsight, we now can see that it was a mistake. Let's go on from there."

The moment a client recognizes that I'm not being judgmental, that I'm not condemning him, that I'm saving that we're all humans and we all make mistakes, then he will find it acceptable to consider to what I have to say.

So whenever my partners and I would enter a client situation, we would look on two levels at the problem we found. One was the objective level — what's the best way to help solve the problem? But we paid almost as much attention to the subjective level. How can we make psychologically acceptable to the client what we will propose to him?

Many people get into management consulting because they themselves have an inner need or desire to feel superior. After all, if you're a consultant, you're the person who's expected to know the answer. I believe that many consultants enter the field for that reason, unconsciously perhaps. We're all so damn human. We all have these shortcomings. But if for that reason we become consultants, we'll need constantly to struggle against the urge to lord it psychologically over the client, to make him feel stupid so that he can see how smart we are. This attitude in a relationship can lead only to disaster.

I always tried to overcome the distance between the corporation and me as the outside consultant. I would say, "Let's look at this problem we're facing here. Let's talk about what we can do." It never was a matter of what 'you' could do. That's the word I would never use. "You" was a bad word. It was always "us" working together.

I Kept Learning So Much

I had much joy, much pleasure out of my consulting work for 24 years. I kept learning so much. Let me tell you a story that was particularly memorable.

     “You could see the excitement, the intellectual excitement these men were experiencing, even late in their careers. They couldn't wait to come to work in the morning. They absolutely loved their work.”

I had been working with AT&T since the '50s. One time in the '70s, they brought me in to the Bell Laboratories. At that time, Bell Labs was perhaps the greatest scientific research institution in the world. Certainly it was one of the greatest. I had never before had any personal contact with science or scientists. I had no education in the field of science, and had no interest in it. And all of a sudden, I'm meeting these great scientists. Two of them were Nobel Prize winners, Arno Penzias and Bob Wilson, whose work confirmed the "Big Bang" theory of creation.

These men probably were in their 50s or 60s at the time. You could see the excitement, the intellectual excitement these men were experiencing, even late in their careers. They couldn't wait to come to work in the morning. They absolutely loved their work.

I don't mean just those two Nobel Prize winners. I mean all the Bell Labs scientists were excited by what they were doing. Their enthusiasm opened to me an interest in science, for the first time in my entire life, and it has grown ever since. Consulting work really has stretched me to acquire new interests, and to learn new things. It's a happy and continual learning process.

Ethics: Trust is as Trust Does

If I were stupid enough to think that I could do ill or do wrong and get away with it for long, well, I'd be very naive and reveal my inexperience in the ways of the world. As a consultant, you may sometimes make an honest error of judgment and give a client advice that turns out to be bad or wrong. You try, in good conscience, to give the best advice you can. That's the only way to survive.

But giving the best advice you can at that time and not being right is a very different thing from deliberately giving poor advice because you think it is what the client wants to hear. An opportunist will be seen through quickly. Integrity isn’t a luxury. It's a business necessity for survival. When the truth begins to be seen, opportunism will ruin a person. There's no future in giving less than your best honest advice.

Recently, in retirement, I had a very interesting experience. I'm officially a member of an advisory council to the Secretary of the Air Force Office of Public Affairs. They've been taking me around the country, letting me see some of their operations and their problems. It's marvelously interesting. They took me down to Kirkland Air Force Base in Texas where the Air Force gives basic training to the volunteers.

During training, the drill sergeant is with these recruits from morning to night for the first six weeks of their basic training. He has almost total authority over their lives until they become full members of the Air Force. While I was down there, a sergeant told me that sometimes when he calls the men and women out for reveille at 5:00 in the morning, as they are moving into formation, he might notice one of them scratching his face. He waits until they are all lined up at attention and then he hollers out, "All right, the man who scratched his face, fall out." He said they never do. Never once did anyone ever step forward.

So then, he points to the recruit who scratched his face. "You, fall out." And the kid is terrified. "What am I going to do to him? 'I don't care whether you scratched your face or not. It makes no difference to me. But I care that you lied. Don't you ever lie again. The lives of these other men depend on you telling them the truth and your life depends on them telling you the truth. Don't you ever lie again."' The sergeant said that's how he makes his point and the new airmen never forget it.

     “The contrast between the ethical values in the military and those of civilian college kids are like night and day.”

When I heard this story, in my mind, I contrasted it with the young people I meet, my grandchildren, youngsters at church, and in our neighborhood. Many are college-age kids. And the "vibe" that I'm getting from them is that in college the prevailing culture allows you to cheat as much as you think you can get away with. The contrast between the ethical values in the military and those of civilian college kids are like night and day. Now, I don't meet or talk with an accurate cross-section of college kids, so this may be inaccurate. But, for what it is worth, this is what I'm hearing.

Sooner or later, the lack of ethical standards catches up with you. Lying or telling half-truths will destroy the future for a management consultant as well as anybody else. I'm not preaching from the mountain-top about high-and-mighty ethical standards. I'm talking pragmatic, down-to-earth reality.

One gains credibility or trust by deserving it. A profound thought was expressed in a New York Times interview just before he died, by Henry L. Stimson, Secretary of War in World War II under President Franklin Roosevelt. Stimson said, "The principal lesson I have learned in a long life is that the way to make people trustworthy is to trust them. And the way to make people untrustworthy is not to trust them."

If a client entrusts me with confidential information about a problem and I fail to respect that confidentiality, I'm through. And deserve to be.

Ethics; Client Credibility at AT&T

I had a long and deep relationship with AT&T, and was an adviser before and during the breakup. Understandably, the senior management of the AT&T Company absolutely opposed the breakup. They had long since decided to contest the Department of Justice's antitrust ruling. As I recall years later, at the peak, more than 900 lawyers worked in the AT&T Legal department.

They were proud of their management. They had a lot of good reasons for opposing breakup. First, telephone service was very good, the best in the world. It was inexpensive. It was almost universal; more than 99% of American homes had telephone service. Innovations were constant. One million Americans were employed by AT&T, "the telephone company." It was the largest corporation in the world. By any reasonable standard, their jobs and careers were among the most attractive in America.

The executives and managers, of course, had grown up in the environment of a regulated monopoly. They happily accepted their public responsibilities in return for being shielded from competition. It worked well for everyone. But monopoly was their only mindset. They had never faced competition. They didn't know how to cope with competitive upstarts on the fringes of the business. Their engineers were very, very good, and they took immense pride in the great network they had designed, upgraded and maintained. In the lobby of their headquarters building was a statue inscribed "Service to the Nation, In Peace and War." (The company long since sold the building, but the statue remains).

But now, times were changing. The telecommunications industry had become just too big for one company to run it all. AT&T then was so all-powerful that when they invented cell phones the FCC held up approval for a dozen years until the government could figure out a realistic way to let someone besides AT&T share in the action.

     “Their senior engineering executives had nightmares about losing technical control of this vast and wonderful instrument they had created over a century.”

The senior management saw all these changes happening around them, but simply couldn't accept them as valid reasons for change. Their major reason for resisting the breakup — and I don't say it was right, I'm saying it dominated their thinking — was that if you deregulated the telephone industry and anyone could hook up a telephone to what they considered "their" telephone network, it was going to wreck the network technically. It would be harmful to the network. I am absolutely convinced that in their hearts they believed this more than anything else, that you just couldn't let everybody hook up everything to the telephone line without technical disaster. Their senior engineering executives had nightmares about losing technical control of this vast and wonderful instrument they had created over a century.

They were so insistent on protecting the network against "harm from interconnection" that they wouldn't permit you to attach an ordinary simple answering machine — which, incidentally, the Bell Labs also had invented — to your telephone unless you first installed what they called "an intermediate protective device." I wondered about this at the time, but since I was working for the company, was being paid by the company, and felt a sense of loyalty to the company, I duly ordered one, just to show that I was "a good soldier." In due time, they delivered an "intermediate protective device" to my office.

After it had been delivered, the installer came to connect it to my line. He struggled for awhile; it was the first "protective device" he had ever been asked to install, and finally he said, "I can't do it. The couplers don't match. The connections are different sizes." So I said, "Well, would you order the right ones?" And he said he would try. He ordered them, but they never arrived.

So in due time, I wrote to the vice president for network engineering, the right person in the company, a man I knew well. I told him what had happened and I said, "You're saying you've got to protect the network from my answering machine. But you don't even manufacture a coupler that fits. 'Protecting the network from harm' lacks credibility. Your case doesn't have much weight."

I didn't get any answer at all. That was very unusual because I knew personally all these people at a high level. They had always responded promptly to correspondence. It was most unusual. But this time, there was no answer. Finally, some time later, I received a letter from another of the senior officers saying, "Well, the reason we didn't answer your letter is that we didn't quite know how to handle it, so I'm sending you an unsigned letter that he prepared for you." It was an embarrassment. It said nothing substantial. It was evasive. Well, that began to tell me they really didn't have much of a case. Perhaps by that time, the engineers hadn't been able to develop persuasive evidence that answering machines and the like would "harm the network."

This incident destroyed for me their credibility on the technical issue. I didn't discuss ''harms to the network" any further with them. Instead, I began to explore and develop some of the other issues that could be sustained by honest research.

What It Takes: Integrity with a Human Touch

Two things I look for: number one, absolute integrity. Not a person who would say to me what he or she thought I wanted to hear. Number two, someone who had experience in management, not an MBA without worldly experience. Human relationships often are pretty messy. How do you handle people with hang-ups that impede their own performance? Everybody has some such. It's all of us. We all have our hang-ups. I want somebody who is sensitive to human behavior and whose experience is derived from pragmatic, practical work, rather than from a theoretical viewpoint.

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