My first difficult conversation…
Many years ago, I attended a training course for “future talent” (I assume it was perceived I had talent) which was facilitated by the then company star Manager, Geoff. After a course bonding drinking night I found myself standing next to Geoff at the men’s urinal. I can’t remember exactly or even vaguely what he said to me but I think it was along the lines of “Gavin you have real talent (I must point out being in the men’s urinal has no bearing on the story or my talent), the question is do you have the drive to do something with it?” I was a little bit worse for wear so I can’t quite remember how I replied but I know it ignited a fire in me… someone thought I was good!
Geoff’s words had the biggest impact on me of my whole career.
I got promoted to Area Manager and then National Sales Manager and worked for Geoff, he was still a company star being himself quickly promoted to Sales and Marketing Director. I went on to work with Geoff in several different companies, we had slightly different styles; he was a tough charismatic leader with a phenomenal work ethic, I was good with people, full of energy and probably needed to be liked too much. Geoff was a mentor to me for many years, his radar for picking up weaknesses was immaculate in those days.
So, on promoting me to National Sales Manager he set me my first task. I’ve always been convinced it was more of a test, Geoff was someone who never switched off from working and assessing people. I was to go to Scotland and spend a few days with the Area Manager up there and at the end of my visit give feedback to him that he was perceived as a little grumpy and negative by the Management Team, and my boss would appreciate it if he would make a positive contribution rather than suck the life out of the room.
This was my first proper difficult conversation. I had been a manager for 18 months and hadn’t really had to have any, my previous role as Area Manager for the South West was a breeze, we were flying, smashing all records, no reason to have a cross word with anyone.
The problems I had with this conversation were:
- I was passing on someone else’s message without any real specifics.
- I was pretty sure I was being tested to see if I was made of the right stuff.
- I knew the person I was going to have this conversation with (from my limited dealings with him) could be negative and slightly volatile, not to mention an ex-boxing champion.
Whilst all the above were deeply concerning, my biggest issue with this conversation was that I hadn’t had a chance to work with him, to see what (if any) impact I could have. In the early days I believed I could save everyone, but as I got older, I came to learn that I could help many people, but some were beyond my reach/skill level. Them wanting to be helped would have been a useful starting point. Still, this was a test – I felt I had no choice. So off I went to Scotland to have the scariest conversation of my management career so far.
So, after two days in Scotland observing this Manager in action, giving feedback on his style and techniques, the time had come for the conversation. The conversation itself lasted no more than 2 minutes. They were not a very pleasant 2 minutes and I did at one point think I might get a demonstration of his boxing ability.
This is how it started:
Me: “So Dave, thank you for an enjoyable few days. Before I go I’ve got some feedback from the company of some areas they would like you to work on. They think you are a bit negative and grumpy… perhaps you could work on it for our next Managers’ meeting”.
Dave’s head explodes… not literally… metaphorically.
The thing that sticks with me most were his final words “you’ve got a f*cking cheek, you have been here for two days and have been as miserable as f*&k”.
In fairness he was right. I had been so nervous about this conversation for weeks before I arrived that throughout the two days it had clearly seeped through into my mood and body language.
I never saw Dave again.
That was the most difficult conversation I ever had in my corporate career. Since then I have had to have quite a few, as well as this I have coached hundreds if not thousands of people on how to have a difficult conversation with someone else.
This guide is based on my own personal experience and the experience of people I have coached. This is not a magic book that will make the conversations disappear, this is a practical guide on how to minimise them, prepare for them and then execute them. As with all my guides, just pull it out of the box when you need it. So, if your team needs a bit of work, pull out the guide to Team Development. Lost your mojo? pull out the guide to Motivation etc.
To read my guide on Difficult Conversations click here