The contentious testimony of the now disgraced FBI Agent Peter Strzok before the House of Representatives is now fading into memory. Contentious testimony might be too kind of a description for the day. A better description could be the “Strzok Spectacle.” In retrospect no-one accomplished what they were looking to do on that day. The testimony more closely resembled spectator sport than a Congressional hearing.
What are the lessons we can take away from this event? How can we apply them to everyday management? I think there are several “take-aways:
- Have a smaller group do the heavy lifting. Strzok testified before the House Oversight and Judiciary Committees. The combined membership of these two Committees is over seventy representatives. At one point, the camera pulled back surveying the entire room. It seemed Strzok needed binoculars to find the person asking the questions he was so far away. It is hard to keep order in such a large meeting, and it is no surprise the hearing degenerated to a rabble at various points. The chairman lost control of the meeting rather quickly. Social scientists have different perspectives on the optimum task force size or committee. The range is about five to twelve members, and not seventy. The House of Representatives appeared to want a media moment rather than trying to accomplish its stated goal of gathering information aiding in its constitutionally mandated oversight of FBI activities. Contrast this to the Senate Watergate Committee (circa 1973) consisting of seven members. The Watergate Committee was an extremely effective group that certainly delivered the goods during its hearings.
- Complicated parliamentary rules can bog down a meeting. During the hearing there were several shouts by the minority for a point of order, and even a request for an adjournment. These were all gaveled out of order by the chairman. The minority then asked for a vote to overturn the chairman’s ruling. That ruling was summarily overruled. One purpose of the Congressional Rules is protection of the rights of the minority. Yet, it seemed the Democrat minority wielded parliamentary procedure more as a sword rather than a shield. The use of complex parliamentary rules is not appropriate for smaller not-for-profit organizations. The Strzok hearing shows just how tough it can be to run a meeting using a complicated set of rules even when a parliamentarian is available. NFP boards and committees should invest time and effort finding a set of rules that fosters accomplishing their objectives, and not tieing up meetings.
- Be civil. It didn’t take long before civility broke down at the hearing. By eleven a.m. the chair threatened Strzok with a contempt citation, Democrats were crying for points of order, and personal attacks from members and the witness were flying across the room. Let’s look once again at the Senate Watergate Committee. This committee operated in a super-heated political environment as well. I remember very few personal attacks (the most famous being an ethnic slur launched at Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii by an attorney) and a dedication to finding the truth. It seemed the object of many members of the joint committee was stating their own opinion rather than gathering testimony from a witness. Grandstanding, spiking the football, and personal humiliation do not aide in gathering information. Ad hominem attacks and taking things personally are the sign of an amateur. Don’t do it.
- Try to remain open-minded. We all bring our preconceived notions to any task we attempt. It is only human. However, actually listening to the other side of the discussion or debate gives you additional information to either buttress or change our view of a problem. It didn’t seem anyone was listening at the meeting.
- Be prepared for the meeting. It is the job of the chair to do his level best to ensure the meeting goes smoothly and accomplishes its goal. The chair did a very poor job of preparing for and organizing the hearing. As objection after objection was being raised, the chairman seemed to flounder with his responses. There seemed to be no anticipation of the Democrat motions. The chair could have met previously with FBI Counsel to come to an agreement about what types of questions could be asked. Although there was little possibility of total agreement, at least some of the differences could have been narrowed prior to the hearing. Similarly, the chairman (the leader of the majority party) could have focused and coordinated the questioning of each of the majority members.
All in all, a shabby job by all involved.