Introduction: You’re about to have some hard conversations
Our lives have all changed in the past few weeks. I don’t mean to say that we stay at home more often or people are debating how much social contact is appropriate. Sure, that has changed. But that will pass soon.
When I say our lives have changed, I mean that we as business leaders witnessed the death of the painless years. Some of us in the twilight of our careers have had to steer the ships through the choppy water of recessions and economic uncertainty before, but for many of today’s leaders this is the first time the future has looked anything other than sunny.
And everything has changed because of that.
Six months ago your 10-Year Target was built on aggressive growth, your marketing plan was about expanding your percentage, and your Rocks were all about growing a business that would become an industry leader. Now, your thinking needs to shift.
What you need to do now is reexamine growth goals, prioritize ruthlessly, make the kinds of deals that get you through the rough patches, and cut dead weight. I know that’s a brutal outlook, but there’s one hard truth that will guide you through this.
Your job is not to be Mrs. or Mr. Nice Boss. Your job is to get your company through an economic downturn. Your employees are depending on you to do that.
Adjusting to a new economic reality will, no doubt, require that you make some very difficult decisions. Depending on your specific circumstances, those decision may revolve around products, employees, expansion plans, or cash flow. Or all of them.
Some might see these decisions as problems, but those of us using the Entrepreneurial Operating System know that a “problem” is just an “Issue” – one to be solved. And the solution to hard decisions always starts with open and honest communication between the involved parties.
Many of these solutions will involve hard conversations. These are not conversations to wing. These are conversations for which you need to prepare, and in which you need to be a compassionate and strong leader.
So how do you do that?
Preparing for Hard Conversations
Step 1: Identify The Conversations
The first step is to identifying the hard conversations on your horizon. Commit to the fact that a hard conversation requires you to prepare. You aren’t wasting time by thinking this through. You’re investing in the best possible outcome. When you find yourself thinking, “I am not looking forward to this conversation,” that’s a good sign that you aren’t ready to have it yet. Preparation generates clarity and confidence.
Step 2: Determine Your Needs and Wants
Any conversation that you are worried about is one in which you have something at stake. That’s why you’re worried. Maybe you want or need something from this person. Maybe you have to deliver a hard message that puts a relationship at risk. And maybe you have to communicate to someone that they are losing their job or their vendor relationship with your business.
Whatever the specifics are, you need to determine what you absolutely need to get out of the conversation, both in terms of agreed on action and in communication. If you aren’t 100% honest with yourself about what you want as a result, then you risk having a conversation that seems like it was productive, but didn’t really get to the heart of the matter. When that happens, you end up having the same conversation again and again, stressing everyone involved without actually accomplishing your goals and solving the issue.
So, do yourself a favor and determine exactly what it is you need in advance. The best boss I ever worked for used to ask “what does success look like?” To prepare for hard conversations you begin by having clarity in your own mind about your desired outcome. Be ready to ask for it and – if necessary – insist upon it. Leave no room for miscommunication. That starts by knowing exactly what the conversation will achieve.
Step 3: Get ready
It’s important to make decisions instead of kicking cans down the road, and that sometimes requires that you act without all the information you’d like to have. But whenever possible, good leaders walk into a tough conversation with as much information as they can reasonably muster in advance. Know exactly what resources you have at your disposal. Consider what is and isn’t possible from the other party’s perspective and what what you are prepared to do that sounds like a “win” to them. Think through contingencies and potential paths the conversation could take.
Some of the most powerful coaching work I’ve done with clients involved role playing in advance of a hard conversation. Simulate the environment in which you’ll be and the things you can anticipate being brought up. Prepare answers to the tough questions you know you’ll get. There is enormous power in knowing what you’ll say in response to difficult issues and questions. Think on your feet when you’re playing party games. In advance of a tough conversation have a mental flow chart of how you will manage the questions and challenges you’ll face. You’ll be amazed at how much more comfortable and confident you’ll be.
And how likely it becomes that you’ll get what you want and need out of the interaction.
Step 4: Keep an open mind
The people you have these conversations with are not going to be neutral parties. Chances are they have their own “dog in the hunt” if we’re speaking Texan. You will always deal with someone who has their own agenda, and success to them may look very different than it looks to you at first blush.
It’s easy in the middle of a tough conversation to become rigid and fixated on only what you want and how you think it should look. Focus is a good thing…keep your eye on the prize. At the same time, don’t put your ears and brain in time-out just so your mouth can do all the work. Listen to the other side. Really hear them. I’m not asking you to prepare to back down. I’m suggesting that you give yourself and the situation the benefit of being open to a solution or outcome that still gets you what you want but looks different than what you originally envisioned.
Good leaders respect other people and that means hearing them out. I don’t care how smart you are. You can’t think of everything. Believe it or not this actually happens – the person you’re talking to can have a mutually agreeable solution that never crossed your mind.
Great communicators listen and think in real time. Balance the preparation you’ve done with the commitment to being truly open minded.
Step 5: Be clear on next steps
Conclude hard conversations by ensuring that everyone is on the same page about what happens next and when it will happen. Period. While it may feel blunt and impersonal, clarity around the future is always better than “let’s see what happens.” Own that clarity and ensure that it happens.
Meet the Founder
Jeff Whittle founded and launched Whittle & Partners in 2011. Before that, Jeff practiced law in Dallas for 15 years and has an additional 20 years of executive business experience. He has run businesses ranging from startups to 300-employee operations.