Tough Conversations: Have ‘em or avoid ‘em??

Nobody really likes them. Yes, some are better than others in dealing with them, but they are likely not high on our most-favorite interactions list. Tough conversations make us uncomfortable. Maybe we even don’t know what to say or how to say it. We don’t always know how to handle them without either damaging a currently-positive relationship or escalating a crappy one.

Either one, our druthers are to not have to deal with them. Unfortunately, that’s seldom an option. Unlike fine wine, good scotches and well-kept cigars (I’m simply listing my relevant vices), the conflict behind the need for those conversations does not get better with age.

Unfortunately, until AI makes us all obsolete, people are in the mix; if people are in the mix, there will be conflict. If conflict is in the mix, we’ll be having difficult conversations.

So then, what to do? Books are written and workshops are held to address how best to have these discussions. Various glossy hardbacks are rife with advice on how to conduct these particularly onerous chats. What if, instead of getting better at them, we figured out how to not have them in the first place? Try this instead:

Avoid difficult conversations by having difficult conversations.

Say whaaat? Kevin, your aforementioned vices are causing you to say crazy things… if I don’t like having those conversations to begin with, why the hell would I intentionally create them??

Simply put: brief, preemptive discussions can prevent having to deal with those bigger, difficult conversations.

A story… I was doing a C-level 360 survey recently, and in following up on an earlier comment I asked the person I was interviewing “So, how well does this executive deal with really tough conversations—you know, serious conflict?” The person paused for several seconds, which is usually a precursor to something bad or negative. Instead, he surprised me…

“Actually, he does a really good job of avoiding having to have those difficult conversations.”

Well, I must say that caught me a bit off-guard. “So, he simply avoids having them altogether,” I asked?

“No, he avoids having to have them,” he replied.

Well, I’m just a public-school graduate from south Texas… I told him to please explain. He went on to explain to me, in thoughtful detail, how this executive has the near-term, immediate conversations with others that prevents things from escalating to unhealthy conflict or those dreaded difficult conversations.

“When performance or behavior is off, or some expectation is unmet, this executive deals with it then, while it’s simply feedback. Instead of waiting until things build up and emotions come into play, he just has those simple, brief conversations—positive and negative—on a regular basis.”

In doing so, he seldom must deal with what most people would call a difficult conversation.

He doesn’t avoid having them, per se… he avoids having to have them.

Hmmm, avoiding a problem instead of dealing with it after it’s created? That’s some cutting-edge thinking right there.

And it’s damned good advice for us all.

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Hey, this stuff works! — Whouldathunkit??

Apologies for the length. We recently received an email from a junior executive we had worked with for several years. He left the client company about a year ago, and decided it was time to let us know what he thought of us. For those who know us well, you know this could have gone several ways… 🙂

Ed. The tuna reference will just have to remain a mystery… feel free to ask one of us if it’s bothering you to untoward proportions.

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The Trilogy: Responsibility, Accountability, and Leadership

I recently had a conversation with some really smart people around Dan Pink’s book, Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. Read the book, it’s a good one, discussing how intrinsic motivation trumps extrinsic almost all the time. If you were expecting me to now give you some detailed book review, you’re about to be disappointed.

As these things often do, we ended up in an extended “bunny trail” conversation around the whole subject of individual responsibility and accountability, and what that really meant from a leadership perspective.

Here’s what we discovered during our lengthy and oft-times pseudo-cerebral discussions:

Responsibility–the easiest part. Responsibility is simply a list of things we do, tasks we perform, jobs we are given. Alan Weiss called this “inputs.” You can be responsible for myriad things, both that you specifically control, and some… well, not so much.

In my world, I’m responsible for coaching, facilitating, consulting, providing proposals, answering emails and calls, responding promptly to clients, etc.

These are all Responsibilities.

Accountability–it’s not the same as “blame,” per se, though there is a certain sect of people who would ascribe such. No, it’s bigger than that, yet infinitely simpler. It’s the outcomes of our responsibilities. It’s the results expected from our inputs.

For me, improved leadership behavior, demonstrably better skills, increased performance of a business, function, or enterprise (that actually follows my consulting or advice!) are all Accountabilities. It’s the results or outcomes of my Responsibilities.

We often confuse these two, yet the differences are both clear and significant. Pay attention to them.

Leadership–heavily influences both Responsibility and Accountability. For instance, we influence–actually determine–what a subordinate’s Responsibilities will be. We tell them what we want them to do, what we expect them to be working on, when to be there, etc. Leaders have, quite literally, 100% control (there’s that word) over employee Responsibilities.

Now Accountability gets a bit fuzzier.

Yes, leadership determines, from a starting level, what results and/or outcomes that an employee will be Accountable for (sorry for the dreaded stranded preposition–couldn’t be helped). But there is also a measure of personal acceptance required for real Accountability to be visible to others–an important component.

An employee can be Accountable “because I said so,” but evidence of that employee actually accepting that Accountability requires a willingness on their part to demonstrate that accountability openly, e.g., “Yes, I did that,” “No, it wasn’t an accident, it was my intent,” “That was my responsibility, and I didn’t do it,” and so on. These demonstrate acceptance of accountability, and that’s something only the individual can do.

Now, leadership clearly influences all of this. Leadership has to make sure that Responsibilities are clear, reasonable, and have value. Leaders must also ensure that an environment exists where accepting Accountability is not necessarily fatal; that demonstrating Accountability is a mark of courage and success, not of weakness and/or failure.

This, of course, is the heavy-lifting part.

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The Magic of a Conversation

If you’re not coaching your employees who is?  Chances are it won’t be your best performer!  Not coaching your employees is akin to a football coach choosing to watch the scoreboard as his primary strategy for winning the game.  Unfortunately, that is what many managers do, they use the scoreboard to tell them there are problems (or successes), rather than being in the game itself.

In all of my years “coaching” managers and executives I have heard every excuse in the world for NOT coaching employees. The excuses run the gamut of “not having enough time” to “it won’t do any good.”  The message I want to leave you with today is that coaching matters and to help make sure you understand coaching for what it is and how it occurs. (more…)

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The Power in Asking Questions to Identify Value

Measuring value for clients with clear, tangible results is important. But before measuring anything, we have to be very clear about what we’re trying to solve for. Without asking the right questions, it’s impossible to uncover any value, and measuring? Well, without a clear purpose, that’s simply a waste of time.

Identify the core issue correctly, then measure- there’s real value in that.

The Power of Asking Questions

The most powerful thing I do for any organization is to ask questions. The advantage of having a reasonably intelligent, well-intentioned third party come in is that I get to ask stupid questions and my career is not limited because of it. In other words, I can sit across the table from an executive and ask what he thinks is a dumb question. “Why do we ship those to China?” Well, okay, roll your eyes, get disgusted- then answer my question. I can assure you that I am going to push back on some of the responses. Asking questions is how I find where things are. (more…)

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CEO Leadership Style When Private Equity Comes In?

When a business brings on a private equity group, whether it is to help them out of turmoil, cash out some owners, allow an exit from an earlier PE group or to continue to grow the company, one of the most important elements that often requires rethinking is the difference in leadership styles between the CEO and the private equity group. It can be a bit rough in discerning these differences and that’s expected. Not sure you understand the nuance? Here’s a quick tutorial. Take notes… (more…)

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