If You Can’t Say Something Nice…Hiring, Firing and Building a Staff: Part 4

I had a consulting assignment at a small company and, as part of my remit, I was available for one-on-one coaching for the senior executive team.  One day one of those senior executives asked me if I would spend some time with a new staff member.  This young man had been hired for a job for which he had no qualifications, no experience and he was loudly telling everyone what they were doing wrong.

“Sure.  I think I can offer some help here.  Tell him to call me and set up an appointment.”  So began my coaching relationship with Mark (names, as always, are changed to protect the innocent).  Mark was young and very, very smart.  It was true that he was hired for a job that he knew nothing about.  But that didn’t stop him – in a good way.  He gathered up books on his new field and he sought out people at other companies and he studied and read.  But most importantly, he used his prodigious intelligence AND his beginner’s mind and immediately understood what was wrong with the processes the company was currently using.  And here’s the rub for poor Mark:  he was so aggressively arrogant in explaining what was wrong that no one could hear him.  Instead, they saw someone who always had an excuse for why the projects weren’t done on time.  By the time he got to me he was described as an obnoxious kid who needed to be fired.  I was his last chance, and for his part, he was so fed up with this “stupid company” and this “stupid industry” and this “stupid CEO” that he didn’t really care (language changed to protect those with delicate sensibilities).

Mark and I worked together for a while and then he found another job and left.  But we’ve stayed in touch.  We had a call this week and he told me that his now third start-up just got its second round of VC funding and has signed a client for a long-term contract.  There was no sign of the arrogant, obnoxious Mark and I had to find out where he had gone.

“Kathi that part of me changed after working with you.  It’s not like no one ever told me before that I was obnoxious and arrogant.  But no one had ever really listened to the content of what I was complaining about and you did.  And you agreed with me.  I felt validated for the first time in this “stupid industry.”  You helped me see that it didn’t matter if I was right if I was such a bad communicator that I couldn’t get my point across without making everyone angry.  All that “stuff” we worked on about my communication skills really made a difference.  I still don’t suffer idiots too easily but I no longer feel compelled to tell them they are idiots to their face!”

I’ll take this as a success story. When Mark makes his first 10 million he’s promised to hire me as his personal executive coach.   But the important part of this story for me is his line, “No one every really listened to the content of what I was complaining about…”  The flip side of this, or course, is that Mark, too, did not listen to the people on the other side of the process he was criticizing.

It is so easy for all of us to get frustrated and angry and not listen – really listen – to what’s being said.  Mark had completely nailed what was wrong with the processes.  But in communicating what he observed, he didn’t remember that he and the account people were on the same side and those account people felt it bitterly his lack of understanding.  They were the ones who had to tell the clients results would be late and face their wrath – not Mark!  He did not understand what they had to go through!

I find that helping people really see that they are on the same side goes a long way to helping them to solve communication problems.  Sometimes all you need to do is have members of one team shadow members of the other for a day, learn firsthand what they deal with.

Early on at GfK MRI I asked all of the sales people to go spend a day at a client’s office, as an informal extern.  I did get a lot of push back at first until I, personally, arranged to spend three days working at one of our largest and more important media agency clients.  Day 1 my agency clients “allowed” me to do copying for them.  Day 2 they “allowed” me to work on the MRI Help Desk.  But on Day 3 I was invited into media planning discussions for some of their important clients and learned how the MRI data could be more useful.

The best managers help their employees by really listening to them; hearing what they do well and helping them learn how to communicate better.


“The art of effective listening is essential to clear communication, and clear communication is necessary to management success.”           James Cash Penney