by Laurie R. Kuslansky, Ph.D.
Managing Director, Jury Research & Consulting
Beware: When a CEO takes the stand, he or she could prove to be an unexpected liability. Dr. Laurie R. Kuslansky, Trial Consultant, explains how to avoid this unfortunate — yet foreseeable situation.
The very qualities that make the CEO successful in business—the ability to take charge, to think in terms of the “big picture,” to avoid minutiae, and perhaps the possession of ample self-importance and confidence—may collectively manifest as a poor witness in the courtroom, which is not filled with "yes-men." These behaviors can handicap counsel and may prevent judges and juries from perceiving the executive favorably. Trial team members may overlook a CEO’s faults due to familiarity, resignation, because they wish to maintain a comfortable relationship, or because other facets of the case distract them. However, it is risky to ignore the negative impact the CEO’s behavior may have on an uninitiated audience (i.e., a judge and jurors) that has no incentive to tolerate it.
Pitfalls of the CEO as Client
The CEO is naturally hesitant to relinquish control. When faced with a threat, this leader seeks control. An excessively controlling executive is certainly not the person who should run the legal show, but often tries to do so. The trial team may not feel trusted and may be forced to “work around” the CEO to get its job done. It is essential that one member of the trial team—ideally, the best qualified—be designated to direct the effort.
When a CEO defers authority, it may be to someone who lacks the skills necessary to succeed in trial (e.g., a non-litigator who performs legal research, writes briefs, or who focuses on motions or post-trial appeals or to inside counsel who is paid to agree with "the boss"). In this situation, friction will undoubtedly arise between the non-litigator’s provision of detailed information and the litigator’s streamlined plan or between the politically driven in-house counsel and strategically thinking trial counsel. The CEO’s choice of one plan over the other may be a show of control, but may work against the strength of the team—and ultimately against the CEO.
Pitfalls of the CEO as Witness
The CEO is among the most visible of corporate witnesses. Jurors view the chief executive as uniquely qualified to answer for his or her company, both as the endorser/enforcer of corporate policy and as the parental role model for the corporate culture. Consequently, this leader is expected to be knowledgeable, powerful, and accountable. However, jurors often view the CEO cynically (i.e., as out of touch with the average person, as poised to advance the company’s agenda, and as being motivated by greed and a desire to protect him or herself and assets). We've heard CEOs make comments that set them apart from the jury, such as "It wasn't a lot of money . . . only maybe two or three million dollars."
In contrast, the juror typically has high regard for the judge and expects trial participants to be polite and deferential. The executive who seeks control—or who seems too casual—offends the jurors’ sense of who should be in charge and how one must conduct oneself in court. If the CEO resists direction from the Court, he or she is seen as difficult, evasive, or unlikable (and thus not credible). Worse, it sends the message that they are above the rules and are willing to break them.
Ironically, then, attempts by a CEO to advance an agenda or to show strength accomplish quite the opposite. Behaviors that succeed in the corporate environment only serve to antagonize jurors. Jurors do not live in the CEO’s world; jurors tend to be average wage earners with limited or no power in the workplace. Though they may admire the corporate leader who has an unusually positive story (e.g., a CEO who pulled himself or herself up by their bootstraps), jurors are inclined to feel distant from—even resentful of—a powerful individual, particularly one who displays an air of superiority and collects hefty salaries and bonuses which are seen as in the stratosphere and unwarranted. The jury trial provides a rare opportunity for jurors to turn the tables. Hence, the CEO who testifies as if he or she is holding court (rather than deferring to the Court) may provoke a backlash by confirming juror suspicions of corporate arrogance.
On direct examination, the self-assurance displayed by a CEO can make a cordial exchange with the questioner reminiscent of a well-rehearsed infomercial. This effect will likely be more pronounced than with other witnesses, since the executive (who is, after all, the client) will elicit only polite and respectful questioning. On cross-examination, however, the same executive often appears unprepared, uncooperative, impolite, manipulative, arrogant, and/or evasive. A CEO’s power struggle with a cross-examining attorney reveals the leader who was so pleasant and self-assured on direct examination as someone who can also be highly unlikable and inappropriately controlling.
Why does this happen? Negative Tendencies of the CEO
Believes that others see things from his or her perspective when most are simply paid to do so
Patronizes others or blames their limitations when others are not persuaded to see things as the CEO does
Finds it difficult to speak at the level of the jury, yet expects to be understood
Refuses to yield on the stand, opting for one-upmanship in a misguided show of strength rather than picking his or her battles
Bullies opponents: It is more important to the CEO to be right than to be likable or cooperative
Insists on always having an answer
Is prepared to give orders, but not to take them; and is willing to ask questions, but not to be the one “on the spot”
Refuses to spare his or her opinions
Fails to speak diplomatically
Appears to be a “suit” (i.e., appearance, body language, behavior, lifestyle, etc. serve to identify the executive as a privileged power broker).
- Doesn't suffer fools well, so shows contempt for ill-prepared or disorganized questioners
Note: If you show this list to a CEO, he or she will deny it describes them!
Pitfalls of the CEO on Videotape: Seeing Is Believing
Video depositions are an additional CEO hazard. Opposing counsel may edit video testimony to create damaging sequences for replay to a jury; these sequences commonly exaggerate unattractive qualities of the executive that go unnoticed when only the written record is used. Such qualities include appearance, demeanor, facial expression, body language, mannerism, delays in responses, tone of voice, diction, accent, eye contact, gaze, posture, personality, and attitude . . . as well as attire, haircut, tan, jewelry and accessories.
Video is especially damaging when the judge and jury do not see what they expect. For example, the CEO’s attire may send the wrong message; an inappropriate background in the video can do the same.
Inconsistent behavior or appearance that would likely go unnoticed in written transcripts can be quite apparent on video and seeing is believing . . . or not.
The executive’s energy level or appearance may improve from one taping to the next, or (more likely) may decline due to fatigue over time.
Poor positioning of the witness may also create a negative impression. If the CEO is sandwiched between deposing and defending attorneys, the resulting “pingpong” effect of his or her turning head is both a distraction and a red flag. Any fidgeting that creates a visible pattern (remember Oliver North at the Congressional hearings?) has a similar effect.
Likewise, the CEO who looks to the attorney after hearing a question reveals uncertainty and the need to defer to counsel.
In traditional depositions, attorneys tend to focus on substance more than form; CEOs tend to answer questions by saying as little as possible. This protects against later attacks on the executive’s credibility (given the developments of discovery and the opportunity to review additional materials, answers in court may vary from those given in deposition). On video, however, such reticence presents as unresponsive, detached, uncooperative, and even evasive.
The CEO who is tongue-tied in a video deposition but charismatic and forthcoming in court will witness the erosion of his or her credibility.
Conversely, the CEO who plays the “charmer” in a video deposition by volunteering information, war stories, etc. likewise forfeits credibility if he or she “gets religion” and clams up on the stand at trial.
Keep in mind that it is easier to lie with words than with behavior. Nonverbal messages may betray the CEO’s true mindset. Jurors know instinctively that body language can be revelatory. From their perspective, the CEO’s physical behavior is more significant than his or her words.
How to Avoid Video Pitfalls
Some solutions to these concerns are obvious: Pay close attention to appearance. In deposition, position the witness to allow a clear line of sight to both parties and the camera. Strive for consistent demeanor over time.
However, success requires time, practice and expertise. To improve the video performance of your executive witness, the following are essential:
Blunt reality checks: Offer honest feedback regarding the added risks of video deposition.
Pay attention to details: Form is as important as substance and more so for credibility.
Clear the table of distractions.
Warn the CEO to use his or her best manners: No interrupting, no bad attitude, and
avoid controlling behavior.
Remind the CEO to respond only after the question has been fully asked and understood.
Avoid ploys to stall for time (such as asking a questioner to rephrase or repeat a question when unnecessary).
Vary the length and the language of responses; use this variety to attract attention to helpful testimony and to avoid sounding trapped or as if “taking the Fifth.”
Model and practice matter-of-fact answers to difficult questions.
Teach the witness to respond in contrasting style to the examining attorney. If the adversary becomes loud, fast, or aggressive, the CEO should accordingly strive to be quiet, deliberate, or polite.
When members of the trial team pass documents or approach the witness or exhibits, they must take care to remain off camera.
Educate the witness: Ask the CEO to observe as someone else plays the role of the CEO under questioning, and then evaluate the CEO to ascertain his or her level of self- awareness.
Employ behavior modification: Arrange for the executive to evaluate his or her level of self-awareness by reviewing details in videotaped practice sessions.
To identify negative body language, review the video without sound first.
Because the trial team’s relationship with the CEO makes it difficult to view the CEO as others will, arrange for an unknown attorney to conduct practice sessions and then to provide honest feedback.
Identify behavior that needs work, then change one behavior at a time. Practice, videotape, then review and evaluate the tape. Encourage positive change, and then move on to change another area.
Prepare visual exhibits (of adequate size to review on camera) to make strong points, organize the CEO’s testimony, and strategically distract viewers from the witness.
Why Does a CEO Act This Way?
Though it seems illogical for a CEO to behave counterproductively, there are reasons for such behavior. The chief executive is driven to succeed. He or she has every reason to believe that tactics rewarded by success in the past will continue to yield success. When in unfamiliar territory (e.g., the legal process), the CEO will misapply familiar behavior (borrowed from the business world) until he or she understands that doing so risks failure.
The CEO will resist the surrender of winning familiar formulas.
Unless he or she has learned through experience or atypically defers to counselors, a chief executive does not respond well when told to change or to back off.
Once your CEO becomes aware of the dilemma and is receptive to new ways, keep in mind that old habits die hard. The CEO will be a poor witness if he or she views a lawsuit as an interruption of higher priorities. Jurors have a keen perception of such elitism. If the CEO perceives the necessary investment of time, energy, and money as unjustified or feels above the need to explain him or herself, the result will be a dismissive or contemptuous attitude, both on the stand and in the steps leading there, but he or she won't have the last say for a change — the judge or jury will.
Corporate politics may undermine a chief executive’s testimony. For example, imagine that the CEO was at odds with other executives regarding a policy change.
Cross-examiners would be thrilled to reveal this rift. They would take the opportunity to exploit tension between the CEO and dissenting witnesses. A CEO would resent the need to simultaneously defend and reconcile such differences of opinion. The trial team must not overlook the fact that stress hampers the CEO’s decision-making ability and performance. Expectations of the CEO run very high. As the corporate leader, this witness has far more to deal with than litigation. The implications of a given case extend beyond the courtroom, and the chief executive is highly exposed. He or she is accountable to employees, business plans, banks, investors, trustees, board members, shareholders (if the company is publicly traded), and the public. Each of these factors contributes to the CEO’s unique perspective of – and stress from – a lawsuit.
When a CEO is the client in a criminal case, the problem of stress is magnified. The CEO is likely to receive little outside support as former allies (including friends and family) distance themselves, adding to the CEO’s anxiety. Anxiety is the saboteur of CEO witness performance. As anxiety increases, a CEO typically becomes less able to accept advice. His or her desire to take control increases in direct proportion to the perceived threat (e.g., if the CEO’s liberty is at stake). Tension may also develop between a CEO’s advisors and the trial team. The leader of a corporation is commonly surrounded by “yes men” who tell the CEO what he or she wants to hear. In a criminal trial, the CEO may present as unlikable and not credible and yet receive positive feedback from insiders who misleadingly assure him or her that all is well. Many rule by fear, so stressful times are the least likely to elicit criticism, even if accurate.
In contrast, the trial team will wish to provide more balanced or even worst-case scenarios. However, when trial team members give realistic critical feedback, they may find the CEO unwilling to listen. Thus, attorneys hesitate to give frank advice because they fear being shot as the bearer of bad news, or because they naively wish to protect their client by shielding him or her from negative feedback (to no one’s long-term advantage). As a last resort, the trial team will sometimes forego calling the CEO as a witness. This can be a death knell – especially in criminal cases – because juries want to hear from the CEO. The trial team then faces a no-win choice: Either put a CEO on the stand who is a bad witness, or avoid calling the CEO altogether.
Too Much of a Good Thing Is Not Always Wonderful
The CEO witness can fail by over-compliance or under-compliance. Training any witness to act against their nature can backfire; an overly prepared executive may not present as genuine. For example, a stern CEO who smiles at the jury when speaking can look like a grinning fool or a windup doll, thus losing instead of gaining essential credibility.
A chief executive must behave naturally, must uphold the jury’s positive expectations, and must not reinforce negative stereotypes. The CEO’s lead attorney is charged with maintaining a balance between forthrightness, control, and remaining sensitive to the CEO’s concerns and anxieties.
How to Raise the CEO’s Awareness:
Be certain you understand each other. Review mutual goals and your plan to reach them. Take nothing for granted.
Control damage. Show the CEO (e.g., by videotaping cross-examination practice sessions) how and why misguided strategies, aggression, and over involvement will boomerang.
Consider the reaction of the audience. Orient the CEO to the perspective of the judge and jurors. Use blunt terms to describe how the CEO is likely to be perceived.
Get a reality check from the horse’s mouth. When possible, mock-try the CEO. Test recorded direct and cross examinations before surrogate jurors to allow the CEO to measure his or her expectations against real feedback.
What the Attorney Must Teach the CEO Witness:
Capitalize on your strongest asset: Charisma. Opportunities to employ charisma may be lost if ego gets in the way (appeal to the CEO’s ego with winning strategies).
Choose your battles carefully while under questioning.
Take control on the stand through both your behavior and your speech.
Practice the questions you dread most through role-play (the CEO plays the cross-examiner and the attorney plays the witness). By asking the most difficult questions, you can learn model responses that overcome anxiety.
Work with others on the case to avoid the “Hero or Zero” witness syndrome. No one makes or breaks a case without help from others.
Use analogies the judge and jurors appreciate but that opponents cannot turn against you.
Use a mock jury to pretest these analogies.
Pare down all excess in dress, accessories, and mannerisms.
Drive to court in your mother’s car, or use public transportation.
Spend time with the CEO to review what he or she can and cannot concede. Supply areas of concession and appropriate, matter-of-fact ways to make concessions. Thus armed, the CEO will have something to give without losing ground and a guide to assist his or her choice of battles.
It’s a Lousy Job, but Someone’s Gotta Do It
As difficult as it may be, it is imperative to tell the emperor that he has no clothes: Someone must inform the CEO witness when he or she has presentation problems. If you are ultimately to be successful in your litigation, this witness must understand the significance of the situation and must be enlisted to help you improve it. Though it may be tempting to avoid conflict with the CEO client, doing so would be a disservice. Embarrassing results would certainly hurt the relationship, and unwanted results can end it. The earlier these problems are addressed, the better.
This article originally appeared as the Cover Story of International Commercial Litigation Magazine.
Other articles about witness preparation, jury consulting and courtroom testimony from A2L Consulting:
- Witness Preparation: The Most Important Part
- Witness Preparation: Hit or Myth?
- 7 Things You Never Want to Say in Court
- How NOT to Go to Court: Handling High Profile Clients
- No Advice is Better Than Bad Advice in Litigation
- Practice, Say Jury Consultants, is Why Movie Lawyers Perform So Well
- 10 Web Videos Our Jury Consultants Say All Litigators Must See
- 7 Things Expert Witnesses Should Never Say
- Webinar - Integrating Argument and Expert Evidence in Complex Cases
- Walking the Line: Don't Coach Your Experts (Re: Apple v. Samsung)
- 3 Articles Discussing What Jurors Really Think About You
- Hurry Up and Wait - Using Silence in Depositions, Voir Dire and More
- The Top 14 Testimony Tips for Litigators and Expert Witnesses
- 7 Videos About Body Language Our Litigation Consultants Recommend
- 6 Tips for Effectively Using Video Depositions at Trial