Difficult Conversations for Growing Companies. Every business person faces hard conversations at some point in their growth. One of Paul Kenny’s best talks at Business of Software Conference. Not about sales, but about the challenges that everyone faces in growing a business.
He discusses why having those difficult conversations, with co-founders, co-workers, employees, employers, partners are so difficult to have. More importantly, he offers some excellent, practical advice about how you can make the hard stuff easier and more productive.
Equally applicable in times of growth or trouble.
Learn how great SaaS & software companies are run
We produce exceptional conferences & content that will help you build better products & companies.
Join our friendly list for event updates, ideas & inspiration.
Paul Kenny, Ocean Learning: Right! Hello, again! Right! So this, as Mark said, is a change of pace. In fact, before I get into that, I would just like to – I don’t know whether Robert from IJ Metrics is still here but I’m gonna give him a little shout out. I’ve been in the training business for 20 years and I have never once in my life worried about taking the graveyard slot in a training program or conference and they assure me that science stuff yesterday – and I couldn’t sleep last night as a result of it. So I would like to say thank you, Robert! Don’t worry, sir! I will continue to buy all my underpants from your company. That is a joke that is not gonna translate once this goes out on video.
So if you’ve seen me speak here before, I’ve mostly spoken about sales and I’ve seen it as my mission to put you in touch with your inner sales person. But that’s only part of what I do and since 2008, this market, you guys, have been easily the most interesting work that I do. But to keep food on the table for the kids and that stuff I also do a lot of work in big corporations and we talk not only about sales, but leadership development, and things like that. And when I’ve been working with software startups over the last few years, often the pretext for me going in is something that has to do with sales. We want to look at our sales system, we want to update our sales training. All that kind of stuff. And then usually, somebody – the CEO, the CTO, one of the founders saddles up to me and says have you got 10 minutes? Because just a bit of an internal issue that I wanna run by you. And that 10 minutes and that internal issue are a bit like what Rich said about the 10 lines of code, you know? It’s never 10 minutes, it’s always a much deeper conversation than that and it’s not only an internal issue, it’s usually a major issue.
So we’re gonna talk about difficult conversations for the next hour because I think that your business is defined, from a leadership perspective, you are defined and therefore your business are defined by your ability to step up and have the tough conversations.
So sometimes, when we talk about feedback, we talk about getting feedback from the team and that I thought the last talk was fantastic yesterday and I’m gonna try to do the flipside of that which is what happens when as a business leader you have to address an issue, maybe something from the feedback you’ve got or an issue of performance or whatever, and how you best have that conversation and why and when you should have that conversation.
So it’s really a leadership talk that we’re going to have. And it is a topic that’s close to my heart. I’ve never done a conference presentation on this before, it’s stuff that we do when we’re coaching and mentoring people. But it’s an issue close to my heart, because I was really, really bad at this stuff. Like you, some years ago, I started a company. I found a partner and we started a training company and we built that training company up and we sold it and it was all great but we signed up to a golden handcuff deal with the people that bought us. And I think like a lot of people in that situation, you underestimate just how much pressure they’re gonna put on you to get that return on investment. So we found that we were under a lot of pressure, my partner and I, and I thought things are going pretty well and we’re both – it was a very typical, it was a bit like some of the stuff that we talked about yesterday with the sales versus production departments, only weirdly I wasn’t a sales guy. Justin, my partner, was the sales guy. I was responsible for the training teams and the content and the organisation of conferences like this. So I find myself when I come here strangely empathising with the product managers and developers even though the salesman in me wants to shout them down. I feel some empathy.
My business partner, god bless him, was a very focused guy. He still is, he’s still alive. And he – I hope he is. And a very focused guy and he chased a lot of targets and then as I say, I thought everything was going fine. I had no idea of the scale of the issues that were between us two founders until one day, we decided to have a meetup in London. Like many of you, we had 2 separate offices, so we used to meet up when we could. So we went to this really nice restaurant in London and we were discussing some logistical issue to do with the business. I honestly can’t remember what that issue was, but I do remember turning to him after we’ve had just finished the entres and he was still eating his soup and I finished mine and I said Justin, for goodness’ sake! What is the problem? And he’s Scottish so he said the problem, Paul – and I can’t tell you what he called me. I really can’t tell you what he called me. If you’re interested it’s very Anglo-Saxon, very old and very, very effective. Its very effective at conveying displeasure and low regard, ok? And I have never been called that to my face in anything other than a silly joke rugby kind of way. I’ve never been called that to my face by someone who meant it. And his eyes were burning when he said it and I was absolutely shocked and I sat there and I said do you really think – you finish the sentence. And he said no, but it was really great saying it!
So and one of things that taught us was that when you get two guys who were founders of a business, who setup a business, 3-4 or however you may do it or if you’re running a department or project team and you’ve got leaders who really care about the outcomes and if you’ve been smart and you’ve hired people who have strong opinions, and who are not afraid to step up and share those opinions, then you’ve got to be able to manage that, and actually the success of your business is going to rely very heavily on your ability to have lots of difficult conversations. And I’m gonna try and define what I mean by difficult conversations, I’m gonna try to tell you why this should be high on your agenda and I’m gonna show you a bunch of things that you can build into your culture, the way you manage stuff that will make you better at having these difficult conversations.
It’s often easy to talk at conferences about the time that things went really wrong, but I’m not gonna talk about those because funnily enough, those are the times when it’s actually easy to have a difficult conversation. When your product has gone pop, it’s really easy, because there’s a crisis and therefore all inhibition are aside and people put this stuff on the table, but when you are day to day running your business and particularly when you reach that size when you’re no longer 3 people working out of somebody’s bedroom or Starbucks and you are not yet a company with processes like HR and all those sorts of things, then you can run into a lot of issues that will affect the growth of your business.
So that’s what’s we’re gonna talk about. And the first thing we gotta do is maybe define what a difficult conversation is.
And the best way I know to do this – as I’ve said I’ve never done this as a presentation so I normally coach this with people. I’m gonna try BoS’ first mass coaching on difficult conversations. The reason I asked you all not to sit with your colleagues, and you’ll thank me for this, is that what I want you to do is just take a minute, take a quiet minute – well not quiet minute, I want you to talk to the people around you and I want you to just share what difficult conversations you have either had to do and by difficult I mean it made you sweat having the conversations or maybe you chose the wrong words and it didn’t go that well or maybe the outcome you thought you had a nice, open exchange of views and then a resignation letter landed on your desk or so you can think about it and one of the difficult conversations that have tested me or you might be sitting there thinking actually you know what? There’s a couple of things that are in the pipeline and conversations… this is why I asked you to separate from your colleagues. Yeah, ok. And we’re going to apply a kind of omerta for this. So if somebody tells you something, you don’t go running to their colleagues. Don’t later on go ‘oh you’re the guy from here, you’re colleague thinks…’, because that’s not networking, that’s cruel. So I just want you to take a minute and share a few things that you decide, you define as difficult behaviours and then we’ll talk a bit more. Can I give you a minute? Talk to each other!
Ok, I’m not gonna ask you to shout them out cause obviously that’s the whole confidentiality thing there, but I’m gonna ask as we go through the presentation, I’m gonna come back to these and to think and maybe suggest an action. I’d like you all to have at least one action either something in the past I could have done better, so you’ve got a learning. Or it’s something in the pipeline so you’ve got something to do with this. So let’s talk about these things that you’ve written down or you’ve discussed.
There’s a bunch of things that make a conversation difficult. And I think the first of these things is that it’s always about standards.
When we were in leadership programs, one of the first lessons we put down is if you – because leadership, there are many definitions and you can spend hours discussing leadership, what is it, differences between it and that sort of thing but when it boils down to it it’s really about the perplexity of people to follow. So if you call yourself a team leader, but nobody does anything you say, the title is somewhat redundant, ok? So often what leaders do and I think what one of the defining factors of leaders is that they set standards for little things like the way we answer the phone and how soon. They set standards for big things like the way we collaborate on product development and of behaviour between people in their team. And sometimes you just have to have a discussion because those standards are challenged. And we’ll talk about why that happens in a little while.
Sometimes, those behaviours become impediments to progress or they become kind of break. So you are progressing but you’re going nowhere near the speed or quality that you might do. Or sometimes it’s just a clash of perspectives about what’s important and what we should do. And if anyone has ever done an outward bound course, one of the really funny things – we used to run them in our old company and we would take slightly overweight IT executives from Essex to the mountains of North Wales and usually in the middle of winter and we would get them to find their way to meet each team at the top of a mountain and it was funny because they never listened to the navigation lesson at the start of their day, they were all like hands-on problem solvers, you know? And it was amazing how one of the lessons they learned is you only have to be a couple of degrees of at the start of a hike to find yourself at the wrong side of the mountain by the end of the day. So how we look at things, just a few degrees of how we look at a problem or how we decide what’s important, it’s a real issue. And so if you’re not constantly challenging and talking about the values that run our business, the direction we’re taking, then we’re not leading the business.
These conversations are then defined by usually – they are emotionally difficult to process and they are ego-depleting. And you know you’ve been in a difficult conversation when it all makes perfect sense when you sit down and think about it and you say I’m gonna talk to such and such about the way they run their project and when you sit in there, your mouth goes dry and you start stammering your words and fudging it a bit and those sorts of things. Or, when it’s over, you are absolutely as we say in England knackered. It takes the energy away from you and those are the reasons to some degree why people are often not very good at having these difficult conversations.
So we have to think about the opportunities to have them and I’m guessing and I’m by no means a mind reader, it’s just this is based on – I guess everything I’m covering today by the way, is based on about 30 clients that I’ve mentored over the last 3 years on these issues. But it’s nothing to do with any of the people in this room who have been my clients in the last 3 years. Nothing to do with them, no sir! Not one bit, ok? But when you look at what’s in there, it’s usually the thing that difficult conversations are usually over – they’re not usually overly technical are they? They usually to do with someone not putting in enough effort into the project or they’re not focused on it or they’ve prioritised other things over the things that the team should be working on or they failed to keep a promise to each other. All the things that were easy to do when 3 of us were working out of Starbucks because we could look each other in the eye and make sure these things happened and as you grow and you hire people that are your steady eddies and not the start-up firebrands that many of you guys are, and suddenly, things don’t get done quite as well, quick or as passionately as they might have done in our earlier days.
And even technical difficulties, one of the things about software companies I’ve noticed is people get very passionate about particular platforms. And it becomes not about whether it can do the job but which one I feel most comfortable with? And those discussions can get very heated. This situation is then complicated by a bunch of things that are like little flash bangs going off in the middle of it where you have different opinions or huge egos or you have real tactical differences about how you get things done. And then you sit there in the middle of it, as a founder, as the leader, as a project leader and you sit there and go I just wanted to make a really cool app that made people lives easier. I didn’t come into this world to deal with this sort of stuff. And I always say to people that the biggest technical, the most complex problem you will deal with is the interaction of your team. And every person you add – at a million dollars ago, I learned yesterday – every person you add, adds a layer of complexity to that and you actually find that you can’t manage these things by quarterly appraisals and annual reviews and all of these sort of things. It has to be about a willingness to tackle stuff head on.
That’s a really long way of saying something that somebody else, a fellow boss could say much more easily than me. And you know, the finding is sorry mate! Most think that this is a quote that you hear from so, so many founders I have worked with – they say sometimes I just wanna get back on my laptop and build something, because I know where I am with that.
So let’s have a look at why these conversations will define your business.
Learn how great SaaS & software companies are run
We produce exceptional conferences & content that will help you build better products & companies.
Join our friendly list for event updates, ideas & inspiration.
And the first thing is that…in fact, is there anybody here, besides me, a veteran of 2008 BoS? I know Ray Stevenson is in here, John of course. Mark will be putting out campaign medals later on for you guys, but that was the year – the few of you who are here will remember there was a bit of a trope. People talked about rock star developers in those days. It’s a term that’s been so overused, it’s become a cliché. And everyone was a rock star developer or blogger or product manager – all this sort of stuff. And I always thought well I kind of got why we used that, because essentially we want to be rock stars, right? We want to produce something that it’s standout different from everybody else. But the question is really not do we want a rock star company? It’s kind of lazy, the question is really what kind of rock star do you wanna be?
Because you could be Guns N Roses. Yeah? I apologise to the Guns N Roses fans in the audience, but they are not really the perfect model for, or the perfect analogy for the software businesses that we create. They did one great album and yes, it sold shedloads of copies in the days before everybody pirated them and yes, they filled stadiums at the time and yes, they lived a life of rock and roll excess. Well done, but they imploded within two years. People were leaving the band, they were falling out, the lawyers were involved. Do you want to be them if you want to be rock stars? Of course not!
Ladies and gentlemen, the greatest rock and roll band and not even my favourite band, but the greatest rock and roll band in the world are the rolling stones. Because for some reason, they have managed to hold it together now for 55 years, now you may not like their music, you may not think they’re terribly relevant, they may not play them on your local hip hop channel or whatever it is that you guys listen to, but they have – if you want a good rock star analogy to take away with you, I heartily recommend reading up on the rolling stones because they didn’t do it easily, you know? They had the differences and in fact if you get my one recommendation of a book, it’s not a software or business book, you should read life, by Keith Richards, ok? If nothing else, you will marvel at a man’s ability to stay alive over that period. But chapter 10/11, this was the opening line of the chapter. Now this is a band that have – they developed some ways of staying together, of staying with it. Now admittedly, those ways involved illegal pharmaceuticals and fistfights and stealing girlfriends and wrecking cars and throwing stuff out of each other’s hotel bedroom windows and all of those. So to think – but importantly, they found a way to stay relevant, they still sell tons of their back catalogue, they still fill stadiums. If you saw them at Glastonbury a couple of years ago, the audience was full of 18 year olds jumping up and down to the rolling stones. They found a way of staying relevant and isn’t that the kind of business that we want to be? So relevant in the long term continuing to add value, yes some people came and went from the band, but the core of it stayed the same. So what we’re gonna cover this afternoon is really about being the rolling stones and not be guns and roses. Ok? So I don’t think I can push that analogy any further.
So what we should also think about and more seriously is, why do start-ups fail?
Has anyone just googled that in your low moments? To see whether you recognise any of the – and when you look at this, what do you notice about this list? I mean this is one of many, this is the fortune one from last year but there are many of it and the numbers change slightly but it remains stable. What do you notice about this list? It’s a rhetorical question, I’m not expecting you to shout out, it’s ok. But what you notice about this list is that almost all of these issues to some degree are leadership management issues. And to some degree, whenever you see, and again if I get to meet an either very successful entrepreneur or someone who has been through the mill and a few failures, I do like to quiz them on it. And almost always, these things are not a surprise to the entrepreneur. They say you know what? When we look back on it, this was the conversation we should have had that would have meant we wouldn’t have gone with that stupid pivot or we would never VC back at this point or this is the conversation with my partner who says we should have split the business and done two different things at those points. So it’s really important that we’re brave enough never to leave these things in the background, because they do have an effect. Businesses fail, sometimes for external factors, sometimes you can blame a big external factor – a war or whatever. But most of the time, they fail because we didn’t have the right conversations.
Here’s another jolly image for you, just to see if you can keep your lunch down. There’s an old eastern European poem and I think a book by somebody called the fish always rots from the brain. And one of the reasons why this is a really good proverb for leadership is that often as leaders, we’re so busy we don’t realise that the organisation around us is defined as much by what we don’t do as don’t say as it is by what we do do and do say, if that makes sense. And so when, we’ll talk about this a little later, when people have a challenging issue and it’s not addressed by the CEO, by the founders or team leader or manager, then what they learn is that that issue kind of doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter whether I finish this on time or whether I let it slide a few days, it doesn’t matter whether I copy and paste some code which I know to be a bit ropey and we’ll fix the bugs later because my tenure on that project will be over then and I’ll leave it for someone else. It doesn’t matter then because nobody has told me or nobody has addressed that issue with me. So you have to think very closely about what you don’t say and don’t do and sometimes, the biggest steps forward you will make as a business is by having those conversations earlier. And I’ll explain more in a second.
Secondly, it’s a cuter picture. You can take a moment to recover from the dead fish if you want to. But secondly it’s that people have a habit of making huge mountains out of little molehills. There is a term, the psychologist’s cognitive behaviour therapists use called catastrophising and that is an internal dialogue. Something to be mindful of actually, related to yesterday’s presentation. But it’s the process of well here’s this problem, nobody has addressed it with me so I’m gonna play it in my head again. And what we do when we play these dramas in our heads what happens? We become centre stage in this huge drama about why my boss in an asshole. Why my colleagues aren’t as good as me? Why I’m being…you get this all the time.
And I just saw this just a few weeks ago with a client where a very senior account manager and a very large-ish advertising agency walked in nearly in tears to her boss and she said ‘that’s it, I can’t take anymore! I’m out of here!’. And he said why? And she said I have been asking for the font on these business cards to be changed for 6 months! And one of the interesting things about this, now it’s easy to dismiss those and laugh at her, but one of the things was that those things became totemic for her. Those became a symbol of being not listened to, not having the feedback fall through if you like, not being recognised and therefore it grows in people’s minds. So sometimes, when you’ve got to address issues of performance etc with your staff, they know it’s coming. If somebody was late delivering, they know you want to have a word with them. And if you put it off, they sit there and play on it and then they go from being it was my fault, I was late to well I was late because the team over there didn’t deliver their code to me exactly on time and my chair’s a bit uncomfortable and I’m sitting right next to the AC so I’m getting a crick in my neck. And by the time you do come to deal with it, it becomes a big issue. So deal with stuff quickly. Again, we’re gonna come back to some of these.
Unspoken conversations, the issue behind it never gets better by leaving it.
Maybe leaving it a few hours to find a quiet time, to find a gap, but never, ever gets better over time. What we do is we convince ourselves with some fantastic stories that it’s definitely going to! So if I speak to them at the end of the week, then the moon will be rising in Capricorn and they will be better placed to listen to my feedback. Obviously I’m being facetious but you get the point. There’s always a project issue, a client issue that stops you having these conversations. And the problem is of course when you do sit down, once you realised it you’ve left it too long, you look at some of the issues that you’ve written down – once you go and deal with them, you know that the pressure valve has been rattling for a while and it’s not gonna be a constructive conversation.
The other issue you’ve got to do this is because people are by nature tribal and they are by nature loyal, which are two things that we hire them for, right? We hire people because they want to be a part of our team, but once that we’ve failed to address an issue and once you’ve got a division which I think Richard covered brilliantly just on the stuff we’ve talked about before but brilliant on the differences between the production side of the business and sales and marketing side and the business etc., people like to be in a camp. And if we don’t address issues of that sales guy who made a promise that they couldn’t keep or that production guy who just point blank refused to listen. And if we don’t address those issues when they’re small, they become bigger and they become part of a culture and the way we do business. And I don’t know about you but you don’t wanna be defined as a business that is – the defining element of your business is that sales and marketing and product management will never get on. In fact, I guess what I took from this true story is that it was the job of the leader to make sure that never happens, the way of doing that is challenging the behaviour quickly and effectively at the time.
It’s not just about avoiding bad stuff though.
Most start-ups rely on creative tension, do they not? To make stuff happen. They rely on us being uncomfortable and they rely on us pushing boundaries and I’m going to tweet a link straight after this, but one of the strategic thinkers that it has shaped a lot of my thinking is a guy called Cliff Bowman on competitor’s strategy. It’s brilliant. But he always talked from Cranfield Business School in England and one of the things that that he talked about, and it’s a term that you should take back with you, is he talked about a thing – he says that in any business, there are 3 zones of discussion. There is – and if you imagine this is this conference as the discussion, standing outside having coffees, chatting about this and that is the zone of comfortable debate. You know? Where everybody can get together and they can talk about their project timeline, because it’s already there, they can talk about the different teams and all that sort of stuff. And that’s the zone of comfortable debate.
And like in here, closer to it in the concentric circle is the zone of uncomfortable debate. And Bowman says that a sign of a strategically mature business is a business that has grown to be comfortable operating, not comfortable, capable operating in the zone of uncomfortable debate. If that makes sense. Tackling the issues, actually turning around and going, do you know what guys? You dropped the ball on that one and this is why. You know, we could have put more efforts into this, we could have done, we should have done this or this. Because once you’ve got through the zone of uncomfortable debate, then you genuinely get to the heart of the issue, the elephant in the room is what the guy called it.
And it’s really important because if I take you back through the BoS years, then one of the challenges we’ve got and one of the things, a recurring theme I suppose, from having real business brains, Jeffrey Moore, Clayton and Rita was that businesses fail not because people are dumb, pretty much everybody has got the chops to start a big business or start a business like yours and it’s actually pretty smart. But when businesses get disrupted, they fail to see a competitive outcome come along or they fail to spot that kind of, the gap in the market it’s usually because nobody wants to have an uncomfortable debate about what we have to break in order to move on. We cling to things because they make us feel safe. So it’s really important that we address these things.
And I suppose as the final point on this why is – one of the things we always train people on our leadership programs is the concept of a leadership moment and you may have heard of this or not, but I always tell people to imagine that there’s a camera on you all day, every day. Ok? It’s kind of unsettling thought and it’s probably true, but it’s – that’s one to think about. And what that is doing is it’s monitoring your behaviour because during the day you got a team of 10 people, they will all have a different thing that they call a leadership moment. It’s a bit like customer moments of truth. There are certain things that you will do or don’t do that will increase people’s propensity to follow you. And that’s why sometimes people can turn round when they’re at the end of a sprint and everybody is really tired and they’ve got nothing left and we say look guys! One more push and everybody is behind you or you turn around and you go guys – one more – guys? You know? And the difference is what have they seen of you that has set the tone for the way we perform?
So we know why and there’s a lot of reasons why people don’t have these conversations.
The first of these is that there’s two bits to getting anything done. There’s the job in hand and then there’s the way we organise ourselves to do it. And I had a little experience a few years ago, I was at a sales workshop for businesses of software, upstairs a couple of floors and I said to – we were doing – I can’t remember exactly what we were doing, but we had a lot of sales problems and we were solving them as teams and everyone was throwing the flip charts up on the wall and I kind of said wouldn’t it be great if there was just some kind of – if you could just do a panoramic shot with your camera and each flip chart was a OCR of the flip charts and it would automatically put them into order and text you a copy of all this work that we’ve done? And I just said it as a joke, right? And about 2 minutes later I realised I lost half the room. Because all you flipping engineers were sitting there going all right, you’ve given us a task to do, much better than this sales nonsense! And there were literally people starting to wireframe the product. And everybody falls into this thing, but engineers particularly. People with an engineering disposition would rather talk about the task, because it’s less personal than if we talked about the process, because that is often deeply personal.
Often, for people like you, the colleagues that you have to have difficult conversations with are your friends. Many of you have hired your college mates and many of you have gone to business with your friends. So the person you have to have a difficult discussion with is the person that you went through school with, the person who you did your first ever double date with, the person you played on the football team with. Whatever! It becomes much more difficult for them to tell them that was wrong, I don’t like the way you dealt with that. And the whole issue is of social distance which I’m afraid we don’t have time to go into today but it becomes a barrier and we give people more slack and we essentially are dishonest with them because they say it doesn’t matter that I rocked up to this client meeting 10 minutes later. You understand, because you’re their buddy and you’re sitting there seething and say yeah, that’s ok. Because you know – you’ve actually just lied to your best friend, but it’s fairly easy to do.
And one of the reasons that we do it is because every time you have to have a difficult conversation, there’s gonna be a time penalty and there’s often a talent – you sit and wonder whether this person truly is a 2008 cliché rock star producer, coder. They really can produce stuff faster than everyone else. I didn’t want to say anything to upset them. The fact that they piss off everybody else on the team and nothing gets done anywhere else, I’m prepared to put up with, because they are so reliably good – and that’s one of the reasons why we let things slide.
And of course we talked about – Matthew talked about this fast/slow thinking stuff. Once you sit down and say well I need to address an issue or one of these issues that we’ve written down and it’s easy to write down what you want to say, the emotional side kicks in and we get the catastrophising. We do this thing called mind reading because you know your staff so well you say well actually if I have to address the way that somebody, maybe our sales guy pitches the customer and I think it’s wrong and I hide him because I think he’s an expert guy, but he’s just wrong. And you start then imagining but what will he think? And then you start imagining well maybe we’ll fall out over this and he won’t be so motivated next time and before long, you are – and then he’s gonna leave the business and then where we’ll be? I will have to do this selling. So we play these scripts in our head and we avoid the conversations as a result.
So what on earth can we do? All I can share with you guys is what I’ve learned from working with some amazing businesses just like yours. And I can tell you just a few kind of hints and tips that are the behaviours that you notice in culture. I’m gonna leave the whole culture and behaviour bit to Alex tomorrow as I know he’s got an amazing presentation for you on mapping all of that, but it will relate very closely to what we’re talking about. In fact, I’m gonna pinch one of his lines, culture is actually just the amalgamation of all the behaviours that we display in our business.
So we need a big list of tactics for making sure that we don’t miss difficult behaviours. So first of all, companies who are really good at this, the senior team particularly develop a really clear perspective. Now if you were here two years ago, you would recognise what one of these is. Who remembers? Who was here? Awesome! Right, ok! How many of you have pulled your report out and looked at it between the last time you met me and this time? Even better! How many of you are really telling the truth? That’s all right!
So very often, our most difficult conversations are not about whether we paint the product red or blue, they’re about how we approach the problem and if you haven’t seen the workshop we did in 2013, and you want to it is on the BLN site and the business of software site and Mark will tweet the links no doubt. And this is about perspective. If you’ve got somebody who is very inspiration driven, people focused, big picture thinking and their colleague is much more down to earth – do you remember these two? Who are they? Wendy and Mark? Absolutely! Said Mrs Littlewood. So sometimes, the first thing I always say to people when they say can I have a word with you about this internal issue? And I say who’s the internal issue with? What do you know about the way that they process? What do you know about the way that they ask and they get things done? What do you know about the way that they like to be communicated with? And sometimes, if you drag out your old report, you pull it and you go around with people and you go actually you know what? I think I just need to say this. And the action becomes really clear. I’m not gonna spend any more time on this, because this is an hour long presentation and you’re very welcome – and if anybody wants to drop me a line and you’re interested finding more, I will certainly send you more.
The second thing is probably the most important of all the stuff I’m gonna go through with you. And it ties very much to what we talked about in the final presentation yesterday. This is a little model that was given to me 20 years ago by a guy I’ve admired very much. He is a former director of British Telecom at a time when they were stopping being a land line company and starting to be a communications company and he said if you’ve got any crucial conversations to have in your business, before you think about what you want to say, check your state. Now, as a 31-year-old aspiring entrepreneur, I was like what? I haven’t got time for that, I’ve got sales targets to hit and 3 different conferences to run. And he said check your state and he explained what he meant. He said that everybody goes into every conversation in a particular state. And if you’re going in with a state of fear of the person you’re talking to is in a state of fear, then they behave as a casualty.
Have you ever had one of your conversations with your staff when they know something difficult is about to be discussed and they go what can I do? It’s all down to production. And they literally behave as a casualty, it’s called learned helplessness. Ok, but if you go into a position of fear when the clients are screaming at you guys, I’ve told you 20 times to get this done! You know? And people pick up that it’s for fear, all you do is spread fear. If your state is one of anxiety, then you become that sort of person who says whatever people need to hear in order to get approval to survive to the end of the day. Which is where businesses lose loads of money. We throw stuff and things at this point. I’m not sure politicians necessary a fair description of them, but it’s a good description.
If you are driven by stress, then you tend to be more of a worrier and also pick the example yesterday from Matthew it was a perfect example of when two guys want to talk about something, he’s already made his mind up. If you’re in a stressed state, what do you do when somebody messes with your plan? You strap on your armour in Game of Thrones style and off you go to war! You jump to your charger and you go to war. But if you can get yourself in a state of balance, and this is what my old colleague Ray used to say. If you start each conversation above the line. Ok, so when we’re in a position, if our state is one of balance, we tend to have a better conversation, because it’s one of guidance so the conversation, no matter how tough the situation is one of where do we go from here? And if you have – I can’t spend lots of time on this unfortunately but I’d be happy to at future stages, but this term, above the line, is one I would love for you to get into your vocabulary because you know when you’ve gone into a critical conversation and you’ve been below the line, don’t you? You know when you’ve gone in it with a position of stress and anxiety because you say all the wrong things the calm voice that is in your head comes out like that, you know? And so the first thing I always say is to check your state.
And you also know where you’re at the top end of the scale, actually somebody brings something to you and because you’ve been in the business for years and it doesn’t touch on you too much and because you’ve got perspective – did everyone have that when you say why don’t you try that? And then they’ve worked a little bit of magic for you. That’s why we call them that. So from our perspective, the first person state is not the person you want to have the conversation with, but yourself.
Companies that are good at having these difficult conversations, addressing issues, building stuff quickly always have a culture of addressing issues when they happen. By that I mean you may wait a couple of hours when it’s a quiet time until you can go for a coffee or whatever, but you don’t leave stuff for days. It’s better to deal with things when they’re this big than when they’re this big. And everything that you ever needed to know about laws of reinforcement, etc., you’ll find in most of Kathy Sierra’s books if you read it, if you haven’t already you will find it in her videos.
But essentially, if you leave conversations, if somebody lets you down in some way, somebody goes along to a client meeting and they behave inappropriately or if there’s an inappropriate response to somebody in a team meeting or brainstorming or whatever, if you leave it, what you’re doing is you are reaffirming – you’re saying as the leader, I think it’s ok for you to behave like that and I’m prepared to make excuses for you. And the longer you leave it, the harder it gets to have a conversation because as a client, if he says to people I hate appraisals, the quarterly reviews and I go why? They’re just another thing that we do and he goes no, I hate it. I’ve got this big list of feedback that I have to give people and they get really irritated with me halfway and they get defensive. And I said well you wait 3 months before you tell somebody that they were late for a meeting or didn’t finish a project on time? He said isn’t that what an appraisal is for? I was like no, we need to talk. But so there will be lots of times where you are super under pressure and you’ve got clients screaming down the phone at your or sending you emails all in caps and you will have to make a valued decision about actually do I let this go or do I deal with it? And just as a based on 30 off clients that we’ve talked to in the last 3 years, every time people leave it, they regret it. So it’s a rule of thumb, never let it pass!
Remember! The only thing you can change is the behaviour!
You may be looking at somebody and going you know what, this person’s attitude is really slack. They’re not as focused, as motivated as they were, but you cannot ask someone to be more motivated. You can only change specific behaviours. So let me give you a quick example.
An issue we dealt with just a few weeks ago with a client, a sales person for software companies I dealt with had a bit of a habit of overpromising. Ok? Now I was surprised. But they were really good sales person most of the time, but they just have this habit particularly with big import clients. Like yeah, we can do that, just 10 lines of code, don’t worry. And the CEO of the organisation said I can’t let this go on, I don’t want to demotivate this person because they work really hard, they’re totally committed, they do all this great stuff, they write marketing material for us, they’re knowledgeable but you know what? As soon as the client put pressure on them, they fold and make promises and they don’t really tell us properly what those promises are because they know what the repercussion will be and then we end up in a mess with the customer.
Now, what’s the behaviour that you have to change there? The state of mind is the state of mind, but it’s the behaviour that you’ve got to change, you have to think in terms of behaviour. Yeah! So on the face of it, it’s overpromising, ok? So you can say stop doing that, but generally people don’t do behaviours for no reason. They usually do them because they’ve got a habit and they do it cause they are probably thinking yeah, but you’re gonna shout at me even more if I don’t hit my number so which is the lesser of the two evils? There’s a level of complexity that comes in here.
So, the over promising is the key behaviour that we want to stop, but we might want to do other stuff, we might actually want them to say actually, we want you – when somebody puts you under pressure, we want you to ask formal questions of the customer to work out why they really want that thing? Because you might bring the problem back to us and we might fix that with what we’ve already got. So rather than – or you might say do you know what? Maybe we want this person to be more assertive and we want them to defend the product now as good enough, to feel happy to say no and so those are the behaviours and so whenever you change – you can’t change attitudes, but you can change behaviour by highlighting those things that you don’t want but you must replace it with a behaviour that you do want. And if you change enough behaviours, then you change an attitude. If you change an attitude in enough people, then you can change a culture. And Alex will show you how to do those things tomorrow.
There are 3 ways you can deal with difficult issues.
- You can ignore them;
- you can fudge them;
- or you can be a leader.
And if you ignore them, we talked about the implications, stuff just gets later. Fudging difficult conversations sounds like this. So please, come into my office! Ok? We’ve had a conversation and there’s a general feeling that your department really needs to focus a bit more on delivering stuff on tine. And that is an utter fudge. It helps no one, it does nothing but you still find yourselves doing it, people still find themselves doing it, because we’re nice people, we don’t want to upset.
And actually if you’re gonna give feedback, and I think this is another crucial one, is that you have to take responsibility for what you saw, how you feel, what you want to happen – and you say I have noticed that, this is what I saw in that meeting, this is what I’d like you to do instead. People won’t always thank you for it in the short term, but if you fudge an issue, what happens when you fudge an issue and you say well we feel we should have been a bit sharper on that deadline, the first question somebody in defensive mode at that stage goes like who is we? And then again try to argue about who is who. Oh, so what you’re saying is that all the production hates sales, and then we’re into a whole other conversation. Again, I’m exaggerating for dramatic effect.
But, and just to give you a really quick example, one of the ways that we discuss, we train people to do this, is we just train them to say look, to your quick intervention it’s always to describe the behaviour. Never a feedback or attitude on anything other than the behaviour. So you describe a behaviour this is what I saw – so in the client meeting, this is what I saw. In the client meeting, it became obvious that you hadn’t prepared the monthly review of the progress, that you were making it up and it became obvious because the slides were wrong, they were cut and paste from last month, that’s what I noticed.
The consequences you should describe them, again the consequence of behaviour which are – so we’ve gone down a little bit in this client’s estimation. It’s not critical, but we’ve gone down a bit. If we do that a couple of times, then any competitor is gonna look good in comparison to us. So what do we do next time to make sure that doesn’t happen? And you put the emphasis on them to tell you that they make the time to do the slides, get the training, whatever it is and then you agree the next steps. Now this is just a quickie to show you that in that, the issue is all owned. I noticed this, this is what I need you to do, this is what we can do – it’s owned and shared between the two of you and it is not fudged and not ignored.
Just by the way as a quick by the by, I used to call this feedback, consequences, options, next step until I trained it once in Liverpool in the North of England and one of my delegates went – so Paul, if FCON doesn’t work, can you tell them to – it doesn’t matter. So I’ve changed it.
Some of the long term stuff you can do is creating rules.
It’s easier to hold people to rules and to standards that they’ve created themselves. This is a picture of the 1997 British Lions squad who had no chance of winning in South Africa and it probably doesn’t mean much to most of you, but if you ever but there was a brilliant film about it. One of the things they did is they took these players that hated each other because they competed on a local and national level and they started with a set of rules. This is how we behave to each other’s in the team and one of the rules was if somebody gets selected ahead of you, it’s up to you to go and congratulate them because it’s harder for them to come to you. They’ve thought about it on that sort of level. So any time you spend doing this, it makes people feel accountable having that conversation because then the conversation starts with this is the way we agree to run this project. This is the communication rule we applied here and this is what happened. And then you’ve got a better conversation as a result of it.
Or you can find interesting ways to de-personalise a situation. This is a guy called Terrance who is a lovely guy, but he worked for another of my clients, a big agency in London and one of the things we tried with them, because one of their issues was a big strategic issue was we got them to build their company processes in Lego. Took a day to do it, but you know what? Once people start to transfer the issue from inside their head and between each other to a third party and this is why business model canvases work so well and why you should really pay attention in the morning, I could do a day on this, but I want to show you what people will experiment with in order to have those difficult conversations, to talk about it in the zone of uncomfortable debate.
In your business, ask yourself do we talk about process as much as we talk about progress? And if not, you should have campfire meetings, which are not about the amount of code, did we back the database up, all that kind of stuff. It’s all about how do we work as a team? What behaviours? Because the more you talk about that, the more familiar it feels if you’ve got to have a conversation with somebody about their contribution to the team. If it’s not there, you should dig around and have a look.
Please use a third party when you’re talking between founders
Please use a third party when you’ve got big issues between founders, because a third party who you trust will look only at the process. They don’t care about the day to day of your business. I have yet to come across a town anywhere in the civilised world that does not have somebody who is an experienced mentor or facilitator. Seek them out! Because they will actually help you with your most contentious issues, who are we as a business? What are our priorities? Where are we going? Those are the people who will do it. They will tell you when you’re being overbearing, when you’ve dropped below the line. They will tell you when you’re being dishonest by holding something back. And if you’re smart, you will find somebody to help you with those.
Finally, never forget to listen!
Because the young definition of maturity is flexibility, it’s the ability to see the world from the other person’s point of view and it’s more than you can do that, I’m gonna refer you back to my previous session here, but more likely you are to be able to have those difficult conversations.
So that was a whistle stop tour, guys. I hope it’s been useful! I know that I’m over time, Mark, so I’m gonna be around for as long – till the end of the conference so if you have any questions, is it better if we do it later? Yeah I’ve run a minute over. But thank you very much, guys! I hope that was useful!
Learn how great SaaS & software companies are run
We produce exceptional conferences & content that will help you build better products & companies.
Join our friendly list for event updates, ideas & inspiration.