Published on: March 17, 2009by Michael Sansolo
This week, 60 Minutes took cameras someplace they had never gone before. Don’t use your imagination on that for too long—the destination wasn’t all that exotic. It was the office building in Washington, DC, that houses the Federal Reserve Board.
As 60 Minutes explained, the chairman of the board never, ever gives interviews. (Well, actually not in more than 20 years and that was very brief.) On Sunday night, Chairman Ben Bernanke broke that tradition. The interview was extremely interesting to watch and not because Bernanke disclosed financial secrets or explained the intricacies of the US economy. It was simpler than that.
If you followed the Fed under previous chairman Alan Greenspan, you might remember the incredibly cryptic statements that came out about the economy. I remember hearing an economist joke that the reason Greenspan dated NBC reporter Andrea Mitchell for so long prior to marriage was very simple: It took Mitchell all those years to figure out that Greenspan had actually proposed. Greenspan had a way of hedging his meaning.
Against that backdrop, Bernanke was stunningly clear and easy to understand. His answers were straightforward, even to a prediction that the economy would begin to recover later in 2009. (You saw the headlines Monday morning.) No subtleties, no metaphors…just straightforward talk. As Bernanke explained, he decided to do the interview because the troubled times called for candor and explanation.
“It’s an extraordinary time. This is a chance for me, I think, to talk to America directly,” Bernanke said during the interview. It’s a lesson we could all learn. Straightforward talk and transparency have a place; now more than ever.
Obviously, Bernanke took a chance. His clear answers on the causes of the financial meltdown or the key early signs of the turnaround might lead to misinterpretation, false hopes or worse. However, it struck me that he was making a statement to a country (and world) spooked about finances. In short, he was reassuring and putting himself out front to address the issues head on.
What does it mean to you? Think about the times and think about the rules that govern business and ask what needs to change at this very moment.
Jeff Noddle, Supervalu’s ever-insightful CEO, give a speech recently on how the world of retail has changed. He talked about the events of September 2008 - the time the economic meltdown occurred - and especially how September 15, the date Lehman Bros. failed, seemed to mark the beginning of the change.
Noddle’s point is well taken. Far too many companies are living in - if you pardon the terminology - a pre-Sept. 15 world. Too many business plans remain unchanged; too many rules remain sacrosanct; too many behaviors remain locked in the past.
Somehow we need a new embrace for this period. The post-Sept. 15 world is scary, especially to our shoppers. They are inundated with bad news and massive concerns. Yet that also means uncommon opportunity to reach out and fill those concerns. The central role food plays in people’s lives means this period provides retailers (and the entire industry) a rare chance to build a new relationship with shoppers by demonstrating clearly to them that we care and understand their concerns.
But mostly it means breaking the old rules of the pre-Sept. 15 world. That certainly comes with risk, but that’s table stakes today. We live in a world of risk.
In short, it’s time to learn a lesson from Ben Bernanke. Break the rules.
Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at email@example.com .
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