I’m sorry. So sorry…

Leaders have been making a lot of apologies of late in an effort to extinguish stories that have erupted in the news. And not just political leaders.  

Last week, Chip Wilson, CEO of Lululemon, apologized for having blamed women’s thighs for the company’s see-through yoga pants debacle.  

Yesterday, the CEO of a hospital had to apologize when one of his physicians was found guilty of molesting some of his patients while they were under anaesthetic.

The King of Apologies though is the notorious Mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford. He could be called a serial apologizer given how frequently he has said he’s sorry for the long list of things he’s said and done in the past months. In fact, he’s made so many apologizes that CBC Radio strung some of them together into this song:


Click here to listen to the clip


For most leaders, apologizing is never fun. People make mistakes, deliberately or otherwise, or they fail to do as promised. And if these failings are of enough magnitude to cause concern among customers, employees, investors, media or other stakeholders, then leaders have to answer for them. 

Ignoring an issue in the hopes that it will fade away rarely works. The next offense can magnify the first, building even more negative awareness until ultimately credibility and trust are eroded. Leaders need to acknowledge the concern, and be accountable for it.

Whether apologizing for your own failings or for those of others within your organization, it has to be done. And done right.

I learned this early on during the many years I provided executive leaders with crisis communications counsel. Whether you are trying to avert a crisis in the first place, or trying to extricate yourself and your organization from one with your reputations intact, there are some cardinal rules when it comes to making apologies. And they apply to even the most rudimentary apologies.


1. Perception is reality
Whether or not you think an apology is warranted doesn’t really matter. If people of significance to you and your organization perceive that a mistake has been made, you have to address it. You need to acknowledge their concerns. 


2. Timing is everything.  
Apologies are usually time-sensitive. People need to hear it now, not next week. Time and time again, we see things that could have been contained simply and quickly instead being deferred until they inadvertently become media maelstroms. If you do it right, the sooner you apologize, the sooner you can move on. 


3. Be accountable. 
If something has gone wrong, people want to know who’s responsible. As the executive leader, it’s on you to respond. If you don’t have all the facts yet, tell them what you can now and promise to tell them more as soon as you’re able. Don’t deflect responsibility by blaming someone else. Tony Hayward, former CEO of British Petroleum, tried that once, and he ended up working in Siberia. Literally.


4. Sound sincere. 
Words matter so use strong and active language:  “I am sorry” is better than the more abstract “I apologize”. And watch your tone. Sounding flat and uncaring will just perpetuate people’s concerns. Instead, sound truly contrite — as if you’re speaking to a close friend.


5. Take action. 
Although words matter, words alone won’t suffice. To be credible, you need to walk the talk. Make it evident that you have taken action so that the mistake or error won’t happen again. Convey that you have done everything in your power to make restitution. It’s your actions that will make your apology believable, or not.


Speaking of apologies…  It’s my turn.  Last week’s LeaderSpeak contained several typos in the margin. Thanks to those of you who let me know. It is certainly not our usual standard. We fixed the errors, and we will do our very best to make sure it doesn’t happen again.  I promise!