What if Ken Fisher showed up at your client event?

Ken Fisher, founder and chair of Fisher Investments, made headlines this week for his offensive, sexist comments at the Tiburon CEO Summit. Word of the comments surfaced in public when Alex Chalekian of Lake Avenue Financial, an attendee at the event, posted a two minute reaction to them on social media. The story exploded, going from social media to the broadcast media and within a day and cost Fisher Investments at least one $600 million client.

I’ll refrain from opining on the nature of the comments, what they say about what is tolerated within our industry and at industry conferences, and whether this may finally be the tipping point heralding a new era where everyone can be treated with respect. There are plenty of voices in that debate. And I am optimistic that it will prompt a productive conversation that may persuade more people to consider how we treat each other. Rather, I would like to comment on the response to the situation because it provides some lessons valuable to anyone who hosts client events.

I would like to praise Charles “Chip” Roame, Managing Partner of Tiburon Strategic Advisors, who sponsored the event. The way he handled his organization’s response is admirable. If you ever face fallout from an unexpectedly offensive participant at one of your events, here are half a dozen lessons we can take from his management of the situation.

No knee-jerk response – when first confronted with the problem, he did not publicly comment immediately. Comments made without consideration may sound flippant, worded badly, without consideration of consequences. He closed the session, finished the evening’s activities, and then addressed the situation privately before commenting publicly.

No shooting the messenger – Tiburon conferences have a strict no media policy and participants are admonished to keep the discussions private. Chalekian probably violated those policies by recording his reaction to the offensive comments and posting them on social media. Roame addressed the issues at hand and did not raise any concerns about the release of the content of the discussions. He dealt with the real issue and not the breach of protocol. That kept the conversation productive.

Collect other opinions – Roame spoke to other people in attendance, including women who could reasonably have been expected to be offended, about their impressions of the conversation before taking any action. Especially when dealing with a sensitive situation, it’s valuable to collect other people’s perspective.

Prompt action – the offensive comments came late in the afternoon toward the close of that days presentations. Roame gathered others comments, considered his options, and announced his response at 7:45 the following morning before the start of the next days conference activities. Tiburon posted an open letter to their website the same day. He acted quickly but without haste.

Decisive action – that early morning announcement included the decision to bar Fisher from any future Tiburon summit and his subsequent interviews reinforced his organizations values.

Public response – Roame has been an active participant in the coverage of the story.

Whenever you organize an event there is the risk that a presenter may be offensive. How you respond can make a bigger impression (positive or negative) than the incident itself. Roame shows us how an organization can respond productively. His event organizers nightmare may actually trigger a conversation that takes our industry in a positive direction.

We can also learn from Fisher’s response. In reaction to the public outcry he has expressed regrets. Not regrets for his offensive statements or Paleolithic attitudes, but regrets that he accepted the invitation in the first place, indicating that it was “kind of a pain in the neck.” He has indicated that people were attacking him “because he has a lot of money.” If people respond badly to your presentation, take a minute to consider why. Consider the possibility that how you communicated overrode what you communicated. Even if you believe your comments were taken out of context and the criticisms unfair, a little humility can go a long way. Of course, humility has never been Fisher’s strong suit. Any remorse he expresses in the next few weeks will simply be scripts he reads in the hopes of avoiding the exodus of more assets after the state of Michigan pulled $600 million of its pension fund from Fisher’s firm. I won’t believe there is any honesty or introspection in subsequent public expressions recanting his original comments. His example is as negative as Roame’s was positive. And that’s an important lesson as well.

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