Col. Mike Lawhorn on the power of asking “Why?”

We discuss the power of asking “Why?” and:

  • How changing the words you use can have powerful results
  • Three key questions to guide your work
  • The importance of reading professionally
  • The importance of being a team player

Listen at

Key Points:

Help your boss articulate the outcomes he or she is looking for.

Before starting a project, always ask these three questions:

  1. What problem are we trying to solve?
  2. Why is this a problem we need to solve?
  3. What do you think it will look like when we solve this problem?

Think about how communication can help achieve organizational objectives; don’t just focus on separate communication objectives.

Substitute the word ‘and’ instead of ‘but’ when disagreeing with somebody to help find a solution.


Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink


Mark: Welcome to Better PR Now episode two. I’m Mark Philips and today we’re talking with Colonel Michael Lawhorn about how his experiences as a senior public affairs officer in the U.S. Army helped him become a better communicator.

We’ll explore the importance of asking why. How changing the words you use can have really powerful results, and how we can all adopt the strategic mindset to guide our organizations in making wise decisions. Let’s get started.

I’d like to welcome Colonel Mike Lawhorn. Mike if you would give us a brief introduction, a little background on yourself.

Mike: Sure, thanks Mark. I really appreciate the opportunity to talk with you today. My name is Mike Lawhorn. I’m a U.S. Army officer and have been an army officer since about 1989 is when I was originally commissioned. I’ve been a public affairs practitioner, which is the military’s version of public relations for about 15 years now. In fact Mark and I met each other when we were in graduate school together. I was getting my Master’s degree in Public Relations at the University of Maryland.

I’ve had a kind of an interesting military career. I’ve more than most officers I’ve move from one career field to another. I was an enlisted military policeman when I started out. I was a field artillery officer in my early days. I went over to military intelligence and worked at the NSA for a couple of years. That’s where I made the transition to public affairs or public relations and have since done that for like I said for about 14 or 15 years now.

Mark: Mike, you’ve had a really fascinating career in army public affairs and you’re absolutely and I don’t say this because you happen to be sitting in front of me, you really are one of the best practitioners I’ve ever known. And your passion for the work that you do and for public affairs, public relations, organizational communications is such that one of your daughters is in fact is following you into that career field. Can you give us some sense of what your typical day is like from the time you get started?

Mike: Sure, before I do that let me step back as part of the background because you’re right, I have been very very fortunate and blessed in the military public relations career field to have a variety of interesting assignments.

One of the times I was the commander of the American Forces Network of Korea (part of AFN Pacific), where I had my own radio and TV stations in Korea for three years for an audience of about 50,000 folks. I was also fortunate in that the army selected me for a fellowship with what they call the training with industry program at Fox News and Fox News in Manhattan for almost a year.

I was also at the U.S. Army Central Command as a communication planner at a major joint command. And one of my most interesting jobs is the last two years I was on the joint staff as a public affairs communication synchronization observer trainer, which really meant I got to go for two years around the world to major exercises and coach and train their public affairs communication synchronization teams in best practices. And I got an opportunity to see best practices around the world in a joint and military environment.

Mark: Let’s dig a little bit deeper into that, out of that last experience what was the most salient lesson that you took away from that?

Mike: I think from a non-public relations perspective the lesson that has stuck with me most is, how challenging it is for senior executives to lay out vision for the team that allows them to get after tasks and objectives and to really explain, hay what is this supposed to look like when we’re being successful?

I think with the advent of technology I sit in a lot of briefings where military officers throw a lot of information up on the screen because they can. And it’s kind of very similar to what Malcom Gladwell talks about in his book Blink, about how we make decisions where he talks about the challenge.

The challenge is not finding a piece of information that we don’t have. It’s finding a piece of information in the thousands of pieces of information that we can now gather and put together.

So I watched teams do these briefing where they will throw everything and the kitchen sink at a commander because they can, because technology allows us to gather all this information. But really it’s because they don’t know what the boss is looking for, and I’m not sure in many cases that the boss has clearly articulated what it is they’re looking for.

Mark: That problem actually has been turned on its head in the last few decades. It used to be that organizations and organizational leaders used to suffer from a lack of information and now they suffer from a deluge of information and picking out what is the most important information from that sea of data is the challenge. From the role of a senior communications person, how do you think they can best help the organizational leader focusing in on and articulate what it is that their vision of success really looks like? Is there a way they can help them articulate what success looks like?

Mike: [on the power of Why] I think there is, and that’s one of the things that I’ve kind of made a cottage industry of doing this is asking three questions or providing three questions for people to ask the boss or the team that they’re working on, to really get at what this is supposed to look like. What does success look like, and the first of those questions is asking, what problem do you really think we’re trying to solve?

Because in my experience I have been provided or asked a number of times to communicate, to get the word out to solve a problem. But I go back and I ask, what is the problem that you think that we’re really trying to solve here? And very often people may not know. People may not know what it looks like when it’s been solved, or especially on a team of people, there may be a variety of opinions about what is the problem that we’re actually trying to solve here.

Related to that, the second and third questions that I’ll typically ask are why do you think this is a problem that we need to solve? Sometimes it may very well be a problem, and sometimes it may be a problem that we don’t need to solve here. It can be something that we live with. And then finally it is, what do you think it looks like when we solve this problem, what do you think it looks like on a daily basis, who’s doing what?

And recently and trying to have that discussion with people I’ve started to develop another question because especially in the military and public relations, we get asked as an afterthought we’ve already decided what we’re going to do, now we just need public affairs to come and explain it. So we get asked to get the word out. That’s a phrase we’ll hear a lot. We brought you on because we want to help get the word out. And I’ll say, well why do we want to do that? Why do we need to get the word out about this particular thing? And the response is often well isn’t that what you do?

Well it is what we do, but why do you want us to do it in this particular case. And so what I’ll start to ask now is what are you afraid will happen if we don’t get the word out, if we don’t do anything, what do you think will happen? And then, for people who are not communicators I’ll start to get a much more clear answer about what it is they’re trying to do. Because I’ll get an answer like, well if we don’t get the word out we may not get approval from local authorities to hold this exercise.

Okay, well that’s a great answer because now you’ve just narrowed for me what the problem is, who the target audience is, and really you’ve practically told me how we’re going to assess success in this communication effort.

Now I know local authorities are my primary audience. We want them to agree to let us hold a particular exercise, and success is measured in whether or not we can get approval to do that.

Mark: So by following that mental process you’re able to help them better articulate the desired end state, and then work backwards from that, that sets the stage for figuring out what’s our plan of action to get to that end state.

Mike: Right, and that’s a good point and it just occurred to me as I’m listening to you rephrase that is I think one of the challenges for communicators is that when the boss comes to talk to you, she or he may not have in their mind, they may not be ready to tell you what the organizational objective is. They’re coming to you because they have a different communication objective. They’re only coming to you with the mindset ‘I’m talking to you as a communicator because I want you to get the word out’. And then when you have this conversation with them they can then articulate what the organizational objective is.

And I think that’s an important point is that often communicators feel that well we have certain communication objectives. And I think a much more effective way of looking at it is the organization has organizational objectives, and that we should think about how communication can help achieve those organizational objectives and not separate communication objectives.

Mark: Yeah I totally agree. You know, one of the things I hear people, practitioners complain about a lot is they feel like short order cooks, where people will come into their offices and it’s almost that they’re ordering off a menu. They’ll say, ‘Hey, I need a press release and then I need a side order of promotional video. And by the way, I need a website too.” And we’re primed to say, “Okay, great I’ll get right on that.”

But if you don’t stop and start asking these key questions like why do you need that? Or why do you think you need that? Or what is it that we’re trying to accomplish and get to those sorts of deeper understanding of what is it that we’re really really trying to do? You might end up doing work that is unnecessary. You might end up doing work that trying to solve a problem that could be better solved another way, and getting that clarity right up front is probably an effort well spent.

Mike: I couldn’t agree more and in fact just a few weeks ago we had exactly that problem. We participated in a organizational wide exercise. One of our subordinate organizations had a problem. The entire staff was brought together to figure out how to help them solve that problem, and for the public affairs staff, an operator came over to us and said, “Okay, Public Affairs your task is to put out the press release. Have you done that?” And we had to explain to them, in this situation we wouldn’t put out a press release.

We wouldn’t have the authority to speak at this particular level of exercise. It would be something that comes out of the White House or the department in the Army. And we went around and around for you know a better part of an hour trying to help them understand; I get on your checklist you’ve written one task, make sure public affairs puts out the press release. But in this particular case that’s not going to happen.

Now what I have to coach my own staff through was when you are working on a staff with others you just can’t be the person that says, “No.” So you have to say, “Well, what problem are you trying to solve? Here are other things we could do to solve that problem.”

Now in the short run, the problem that person was trying to solve his, I’ve got a checklist that says public affairs put out a press release. The only problem I care about solving right now is that the public affairs people tell me that they will put out a press release.

So what we did is we articulated this way. We said, “Okay, if there is a press release to put out it will come from the department in the army and we will get you a copy.” And that was close enough for them to mentally check that block and say, okay I’ve solved my short-term problem, but then we have to go back and help solve a longer term problem is, your exercise checklist doesn’t accurately reflect how we can best help you contribute to the success of the mission.

Mark: Absolutely, it sounds like what we’re talking about is the difference between is focusing on tactical actions like writing and sending a press release versus a strategic approach, which is trying to figure out at a very fundamental level what is it that the organization is trying to achieve and what role can communications play or public affairs play in achieving that. And as a council, public affairs or public relations can help the organization better understand and articulate that desired end state.

Mike: I think you are absolutely right, and that’s why I like to go back to those three questions about what problem are we trying to solve, why is this a problem we need to solve, and what do you think it will look like when we solve that problem. And I think that starts when you’re on a team of other staff members that you can help you know, first and foremost you just simply get agreement from everybody on the team about what is the problem that we are trying to solve. Because when you are dealing with other human beings is very easy to have that problem because people want to do a good job.

They want to get after a problem and they want to start problem solving. For a long time we have really emphasized I think particularly in western culture, we have emphasized the success of the person who is a doer; you are doing things, you’re implementing solutions, and you’re solving problems.

Mark: I think that is particularly acute in the military where we are primed to action; the boss says go and we go. You know we are not necessarily encouraged to stop and question.

Mike: Right, and I think the military adds to that the additional challenge of typically people are moving in about a two-year window. So at the end of your two years, you need to be able to show a list of problems that you have solved and solutions that you have implemented.

Mark: That there’s a bias towards action.

Mike: Right not the length of time it took you to arrive at a really, really good decision.

Mark: Totally agree. So, let’s switch focus a little bit, organizational communications as a profession for a long time now. If you have the opportunity to communicate with your younger self, who was just starting this as a career would you have any advice for yourself?

Mike: I think the one thing that I probably haven’t done enough of is reading professionally. It’s one of those things that is easy to fall by the wayside, and it’s one of those things, especially now, it can seem overwhelming especially with the Internet, there are a lot of places to go get information. And I think maybe picking one good professional journal to go back and read periodically, one good blog or one good electronic website, and I’ve just started to get back into that you know, take 15, 20 minutes a day of setting that aside.

And I know for me I’m not a very of what I would consider a very organized person, and so one of these tricks that I have learned that I’ve started to implement which is useful is just putting that time on a Microsoft Outlook calendar that says, hey, you have set aside 15 minutes a day, and not to surf the Internet, but to actually pick out an article and say I’m going to read this to make sure that I’m keeping up on what is going on in my profession.

It’s one of those things that a lot of people talk about, but I think it’s easy for that to fall by the wayside, and that’s probably one of the things that I have not done as well as I would have liked.

Mark: Okay good advice. What do you think you’re better at than other people?

Mike: I think that one of the things that I bring to the table is that framework for thinking of just asking that question, “What problem are we trying to solve?” I am amazed at when I asked that question of three people that I will get three different answers a lot of times. And I think it goes back to that bias for action. Everybody wants to jump right into the problem solving and solution implementing phase. And I think that challenge is exacerbated by the boss often says that they will know what they want when they see it, but that doesn’t translate into clear guidance and objectives given up front.

So very often the staff is left to decide for themselves, what is the problem, what are the problems that we need to solve. And that is one thing that I think that do very well is raise my hand and say, hey let me ask, what does everybody here think is the problem that we’re trying to solve.

Mark: Yeah, that’s probably a rare instance. Okay and going to ask you a bit of a curve ball with two questions. First, I want to ask you about when you’ve experienced failure in your career and how you dealt with that, as well as when you’ve had a success in your career. And what I’m looking for is how we can learn from both of those experiences.

Mike: Okay, I think on the failure, early in my career as a public affairs officer I had gone out to the National Training Center (at Fort Irwin), which is a big testing area in the middle of the desert where forces come out and we do these large combined arms exercises.

I was responsible for running the base newspaper and an individual had come over to ask us if we could run pictures of pets for adoption in the base newspaper. Well I was all excited. I had just come from getting my master’s degree in public relations, and I was ready to do a complete campaign plan of how we were going to identify the problem and get after it, and do all these different things to help.

We identified the real problem was people were abandoning pets as they left the desert, and so the vet clinic was overwhelmed with the number of pets that were up for adoption. And so we had planned out this campaign plan of education for pet adoption, and to build that into the end processing stations there on post. And I did not realize that the woman that came to talk to me only wanted to solve one problem that she had told her boss she would get the newspaper to run pictures of pets for adoption. And that was the only thing she was interested in solving, because it was an additional duty for her.

She wanted to get back to her real job and wanted to check this block and move on. And so, we should have followed up with some other people. I would have loved to have explained, hey this all turned out to be eventually a big success anyway because we adapted and we overcame.

And the fact is that at the end of the conversation I agreed — sure, at the very least we can run pictures pets for adoption, but we never went back and figured out if we really believe that pet adoption is a larger problem, who do we have to go talk to to help solve that problem? Because it became very easy to get overwhelmed by other things, and I knew that this individual wasn’t the right individual because like I said, it was an additional duty for her so she was not interested in going back and being involved in that process.

She had a very clearly defined problem that she wanted to solve. She got her problem solved, and she was ready to move onto the next thing and not revisit this. So we never did. We never went back and looked at this at a larger level to try to solve that issue.

On the success side, we had a challenge with a joint exercise involving the Jordanian armed forces, who, because it was in Jordan, they were going to be the responsible party for approving any materials that got released publicly; any sort of imagery, press release, etc.

And so, in the military we have a thing called a public affairs posture, which says it’s either respond to query or defining how active a hand we are going to take and releasing imagery. And so because the Jordanians were the host country, they have the approval authority for any imagery that would get released.

Well, typically in the military we only use one of two postures: We’re either actively going to release all the material or we’re not going to release any material. So the Jordanians said, of those two we’re going to pick the posture that says we’re not going to release any material. But I was getting some pressure from back in the United States to release some imagery showing the United States a broad participating exercise, but the problem was the military only looks at the PA posture as you have two options; release things or don’t release things.

So, after we sat down and said what’s the problem that we’re trying to solve here, we came to the conclusion that look, the real problem is that the Americans want some imagery of Americans doing things and aren’t necessarily wedded to the idea of having to have Jordanians in the photo. We just want to show the kinds of things that the unit involved wanted some imagery.

The problem was also that the Jordanians were going to release any imagery, as long as we were giving them a dichotomy of choice. So we went back and we wrote these special instructions as to say, we won’t release material, but in the case of American imagery that shows American soldiers and does not show Jordanians, the Americans have the authority to release that sort of imagery. And the Jordanians agreed.

I know that sounds like a small thing, but when your institution is so used to we only do one of these two ways, it was quite an issue and it took us several days to work through a third option to say, we’ll release this imagery.

And so we were able to release the US imagery in a timely fashion without offending the Jordanians, which as you know as being deployed before, host nation sensitivities are one of the top issues that we’re concerned with when we’re operating in a coalition environment with other armed forces around the world.

So that turned out to be a success for us. We were able to solve everyone’s problem, by going back and looking at what is the problem that we’re trying to solve, and what does this look like when we’re solving this problem. Well, it looks like the Jordanian’s are allowed to have approval authority for everything, showing both countries, and yet the Americans are allowed to release imagery in a timely fashion, as long as it only shows US forces.

Mark: I think that’s a great example of taking a strategic approach to solving a problem in the moment, in the field. I assume you are still excited about being a public affairs officer and doing that job in today’s army, what has you most excited about being a practicing public relation professional today?

Mike: What I really like is the energy of the people that are in this career field. I get to lead a team of folks who really want to do things well, and I’m just excited about the level of knowledge they bring to the career field for using things like social media, traditional media as well. And it really is exciting to go into work every day, and be around folks that want to get after big picture issues, and help the organization solve problems, but bring an incredible amount of technical expertise to that.

And one of the things that I really appreciate most is in this particular career field is the level of drive that people have. And I can get the team together and have a discussion about where we want to go, what problem we’re trying to solve, what it looks like when we get there, and then people are off and running doing some amazing things and thinking that next step ahead.

I think that is an extra advantage of when you have that discussion about focus more on what this looks like at the end instead of giving people a task list, people will come back to you and say, hey, while I was thinking through this I came up with these two or three other great ideas to do which will help us get to where we want to be at the end. And I think that’s the thing that excites me the most about working with the people in this career field.

I love that this career field seems to attract the creative types. You know I make a joke amongst my soldiers that a lot of the times it was the people or it is the people who were either in band or in drama at high school. It’s those creative types. I love those kinds of people. I was in band myself, and so it’s nice to feel that I’m around those kinds of people. But that energy and creativity is what I think excites me most about being in this career field.

Mark: Fantastic. So I have a son who just finished grad school. He’s just starting his first professional job in an ad agency (Venables Bell & Partners) on the West Coast. The advice I gave him was, aside from work hard and do the best job you can was, as you’re learning your job and your craft try to learn the job that everybody else in the agency is doing. He’s a brand strategist, but there are a lot of other folks; they’re copywriters, they’re art directors there’s many others. My advice to him was: As best you can, try to glean as much knowledge about the other key professions in the agency world. What they do, how they do it, how they approach the problems that the agency is asked to solve, so that you can understand their views and how they approach those problems.

You have a daughter, who is just about to start her career in public relations, what advice would you give her?

Mike: I think based on my experience, one of the things that is really, really important is understanding how to be a team player, because so much of what we do especially for young people in this career field. I mean I’m at the point, I’m you know 15 years in this career field, nearly 30 years as a commissioned officer here in a few years. More often than not, I’m the one leading at least the communication team.

For young people starting off in this field, very rarely are you going to be at least in the initial stages of your career the person in charge of leading the communications team or any team. And it is so important to build a reputation at this point in your career for being a team player. That doesn’t necessarily mean agreeable to anything else anybody wants to do, and you can still be the one asking the question, hey just so I’m clear, what problem do we think we’re trying to solve. But you have to have a reputation for being someone that will work well on a team.

Again, that doesn’t mean you agree to everything everybody else wants to do. But I especially see with social media and reputation management, online reputation management, and in terms of networking and in terms of you know, at my level you’ve sat in higher hiring boards, you’ve listened to people talk about people. You know that one of the top things people talk about in looking at perspective promotions, who do we want to promote, who do you want to select to be on this new team. A lot of that discussion centers around do they work well on a team.

It doesn’t necessarily always need to be you know, you’re not the person bringing in cookies for the team, but just someone who can articulate vision, can disagree well with others.

One small tactic that I learned from reading this in a book somewhere and I have implemented this, and I was amazed at how well this worked out is, I never, well I try never to use the word ‘but’ when I’m disagreeing with somebody. Because everybody knows that “I see your point but,” means that I don’t see your point. I hear what you’re saying but, mean I don’t hear what you’re saying at all.

And I have learned to substitute the word ‘and’ with that, something that sounds so ridiculously small but will go a long way towards not turning the person off to whom you are speaking to.

You say, I see your point, and I think another way that we can help get after that is… And that small thing — I don’t even remember where I read it, but I remember reading it somewhere. But a small thing like that I think has really helped me be a better team player. And so I think that is the number-one piece of advice I can give to my daughter or to any young person starting off is look at the people that other people respect on the team. And try to figure out what it is that they’re doing to be a good team player, while still being able to articulate and defend their own possessions when they need to.

But that is the thing that is going to help you be successful on the long run, because everything we’re going to do now, everything we do in the communication realm, because you’re not going to be a master of all trades so you are always going to be on a team. Whether you’re leading the team or a team member, but you are always going to be involved in teamwork. And being an effective member of that team will help you go far.

Mark: That is hugely valuable advice, thank you so much for that. And you know it reminds me that it gets back to this sort of thing that you and I have talked about for many times over the years about the core nature of what we do is really about relationships.

Mike: Right, absolutely.

Mark: And I don’t know that everybody agrees with that, but I think it’s something that we agree on, that the essence of public relations or public affairs is not so much about the communication on the surface, but it’s about how that communication facilitates key relationships and how it can either help or hinder those relationships, and especially the relationships that important to our organizations. So thank you so much for that advice.

Mike, it’s been a real pleasure having you here today.

Mike: I’ve really enjoyed it.

Mark: You know, you’re a terrific friend and one of the best practitioners I’ve ever known, so thanks for spending the time with us today and thank you for your service.

Mike: Thanks so much, Mark. I really appreciate it, thank you.

— — —

Thanks for spending a little time with us today and I hope you found it entertaining, but more than that I hope you found something useful, something you can make your own. I’d love to know what you think about the podcast. Who would you like to hear on the show? What questions would you like answered? What challenges are you facing?

Well, that’s it for today. I hope you’ll join me on the next session of Better PR Now. To be sure you never miss an episode, please consider subscribing.

See you soon!

Originally posted at Better PR Now