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David Petraeus, Mike Leach and the Art of the Investigation

You probably haven’t missed the news of former general and head of the CIA David Petraeus and his sudden resignation and ensuing inquiry stemming from an admitted extramarital affair.

But you would be forgiven if you missed the news of Washington State University coach Mike Leach being accused by a player of abuse and is now part of an ensuing investigation.

While the importance, scope and topics of these investigations are vastly different, I certainly couldn’t help to think back to some of the investigations I headed up from my days in human resources.

I’ll start with the easy one: the investigation of my alma mater. If there is any good side of this, the fact is that the investigation will likely be swift and completed by a third-party (the Pacific 12 conference) along with some consultation with the NCAA. Given recent events in college football, there is no choice but to take anything of this nature seriously.

While I have serious doubts about the merits of the accusation, I’m looking forward to the process and being completed with it as soon as possible.

I had a mentor that told me that doing the more complicated inquiries is a balancing act. Fast isn’t fast enough and thorough isn’t thorough enough. Ever. Failing to do one or the other is a failure to both the person reporting and the person being reported. And if the person has been accused before (as Leach has), even if he was exonerated from wrong-doing (he was), you still get to carry that same rap. And for the people reporting, they get to hear the same stuff over and over. Doubts creep in as the investigation takes longer. It’s just a bad scenario for everyone involved.

So you can’t be done soon enough but you have to do a thorough job as well. If this investigation rolls on for months and months, it hurts everyone involved. That’s why I believe (and it sounds like) the university and the conference will drive this inquiry hard like good HR people are taught.

The same can’t be said for the formal general.

Instead of a disinterested body with the ability to investigate and impose their own penalty like the NCAA or Pac 12 conference, Petraeus is going to face an entirely different process altogether. It is going to be a political process, one that involves both an internal review and a review by Congress at the very least.

Questions will be raised about who knew what and when or how many people were involved (it has already snared more). They’ll look into security risks and there will be some concern about the timing of this relative to another political process, the general election.

And there will be grandstanding. A whole lot of grandstanding by senior officials and by members of Congress. I don’t know if anyone at CSPAN gets excited about stuff like this but they should. This is gold for their channels.

Very likely, we could still be talking about this next year, too. That’s how long this takes. And with other congressional priorities and a lame duck, holiday shortened session, this is one thing that will probably be booted to next year.

People will be coached and lawyered up. There will be no swiftness. And a lot of defining terms. When does someone have knowledge of something? What does suspicion entail?

The lesson here is simple: make your internal investigations as long as necessary but not any longer than that. In short, don’t follow the lead of Congress.

That probably goes for nearly anything else you do in business or in life, too.

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