Have you got the guts to have the tough conversations?

It has been a year now since I had any staff to manage. If you listen closely, you can hear the angels sing. Whilst I did enjoy it and all the challenges it threw my way, it was nothing short of the most difficult thing I ever did. I chose not to have children, so I managed people instead. God works in mysterious ways.

It is true that I will have stories to dine out on for the rest of my days.

Anyone who knows me lived this example of managing poor performance, painstakingly! One of my staff used to take the company car to drive to the shop to get coffee for everyone (of course he walked around the building and took orders before he left). He returned, delivered said coffees, chatting to all along the way, then took time to drink his own coffee and eventually got back to work. He thought this took 15 minutes; his tea break. In fact it took 40 minutes, on a good day. He conveniently forgot that he traded off that tea break when he signed the last Enterprise Agreement giving him a 13% pay increase over three years. Not entirely his fault, no one had the guts to tell him that he couldn’t do that anymore.

If you are let get away with something for long enough, it can become the norm.

This very same guy did a less than sterling performance for 27 years. He was an absolute under-achiever of the highest order. When challenged on his work ethic, his work contribution and his general performance, he quite rightly produced his HR file and showed me that no one had ever challenged him on this before. That meant it must be me, the new Bossy Bitch who had a problem with him and the way he worked.

Well hidden potential

That was without doubt one of the toughest challenges of my career. It took me a year of setting targets, measuring performance, reviewing targets, adjusting targets, sending him on more learning and development than was good for him and basically devising every strategy I could find to get him to reach his potential. He had the most well hidden potential of anyone I had ever met.

Lots of very tough conversations and nine months later, he was dismissed for his consistent abysmal performance, including mistakes costing the company thousands of dollars, ruining our reputation and creating ill will amongst his colleagues (unlike anything I have ever seen.) Dismissing someone in a Government run institution was a tough gig, I give you the drum!

Your staff may just thank you for it.

There are thousands of employees out there just like him. It is tough having to have conversations with people about the way they work, or rather the way they don’t work. I doubt to this day that he thanks me for it, but I have had other staff who have. I have had people return to thank me after I have made them redundant, cancel their contract or just plain old tell them off for bad behaviour. Some of them gloat, and that is OK. Some realise it is the best thing they could have done, or could have had happen to them. To leave an environment that doesn’t stretch you or your creativity and is a lovely deep, well grooved rut can be a liberating experience, regardless of how it happens.

It is never a pleasant job to have to tell someone that they are going to lose theirs. People are human at the core of all that shockingly poor performance. They have lives to lead and children to feed, husbands, wives and parents to entertain and ignore just like the rest of us. Pity they don’t think of them when taking their employer for granted.

I have had to have tough conversations, not just about performance, but about stealing, bullying, racism, sexism and inappropriate swearing. I have had to tell someone it is not appropriate to call the company you work for a euphemism for a female body part. I have had direct and uncomfortable chats with people about bad body odour, inappropriate clothing, smoking in a non-smoking flammable confined space; coming in late, leaving early, excessive private phone calls – you name it. Were any of them nice, NO! Not for me and especially not for the staff concerned.

However, every single one of them knew exactly where they stood after those conversations.

To refuse to tell a person that they are under-performing, is not only poor management practice, it is poor leadership. It’s unfair and in fact, it’s just plain old bad human skills. Most of us just want to do a good job. Some of us think we do, and some of us know it, even though we aren’t always told (when will people get that? Can you just say “thank you for your work”, or “You’re doing a good job”. Is it really that hard!!?). I digress…..and OK, yes I was channelling a few of my previous bosses just then, sorry.

If you don’t provide feedback to people, good or bad, they will keep doing what they have always done, whether it is right or wrong. Having the tough conversations can drive you mad if you are not prepared and if you don’t have the skills to do it well and to protect yourself in the process.

Six tips for having the tough conversation

  1. If you witness the bad behaviour, ask the person into your office. Nicely, quietly and privately.
  2. If you don’t see it for yourself, then ask them to come and see you. Ask them for their version of the story. Perhaps: “I heard something unpleasant about xyz….can you tell me what happened?”
  3. Whatever the situation, start the discussion immediately. Do not make small talk or make them feel like they are going to be having a friendly chat with you. This is business and it is serious.
  4. Address the issue. “I just noticed {or I heard} that you did……(insert appropriate disaster here). I wonder why that happened, can you tell me about it please?”
  5. Give them enough time to provide you with an answer. Let’s be honest here, no excuse is acceptable when someone has used bad behaviour in an office, so the next tip is not negotiable!
  6. Say this, clearly, precisely and succinctly. “I just want to make it clear to you that that type of behaviour is not acceptable here in this office, nor in this business. Do you understand?”

Then stop talking.

My experience is that people listen, tell the truth and respond. They are usually embarrassed to be called on bad behaviour and who isn’t? Ask them if they are clear on it. Never underestimate the power of repeating your point, over and over again if you have to. If they start to give an excuse, remind them in the nicest possible way that they are adults; that they have a responsibility to work well with others and to just do their job.

If there are serious reasons why their job can’t be done, they can be discussed later. Make a note of them, then make another time to review workload, or do whatever you have to do to support them (yep, crap behaviour still requires support…much like parenting!). But make those two meetings separate so they are clear on the performance message, and that they are also clear on who is the leader.

The “…how dare you?” tantrum

Seriously, if ever anyone says those words to me, I walk away. They may as well ask me if I know who they are. As a manager I recover from my shock and then take the person in question for a very strict, very sotto voce conversation (strange phenomenon that, the angrier I get the softer my voice!)  I have had staff attempt to throw a tantrum after they have left my office. I followed them and suggested that they go for a walk, or take a break or go work the guillotine (OK, that was a dream, I was in printing!). Keep your resolve and make sure they are aware that you will not accept that behaviour under any circumstances.

Livestock in your living room?
Livestock in your living room?

Feedback is a wonderful thing and I have been known as the Feedback Queen all my life. I love it. I have learned to accept it and I give both positive and negative feedback graciously. It is difficult to manage people because they are people. Some will hate your guts till the cows come home (but what are you doing with livestock in your living room?) and some will adore you for it.

I know some of you reading this will be wondering if I worked in a prison, or even dealt with small children and farm animals. Not so, just an environment where staff had been let do what they wanted; one with no authority, no leadership and certainly no one there who had the guts to have tough conversations.

Social Media will make you review your website. Oh and your business. Ready?

In my short experience in this game, one thing I know is true – so true in fact that it may just be basic and awfully boring to some of you! If that is you, it’s OK to leave now, this is meant for all the newbies.

When I spend some time with a client, learning about their business, their customers and their values, we then get onto their website. I deal with small business, they are mostly concerned about their own little place, not what the rest of the whole world thinks!

The Little Place
"..just concerned about our own little place"

They watch me have the same experience their customers have when they go to the website. Sometimes they stand back, arms folded and gloat over their wonderful work. Most times they look on, cringing ever so slightly. Mostly, I find that the website could be a little prettier. Actually, never mind just pretty, some of them could be a little more user friendly, possibly designed in this decade and with a bit more of a welcoming spirit about them.

What happens when your customers land on your web page? Do you give them an experience, or do you give them information? This is 2009 we want the experience thanks.

If I want contact information about your business, I can go to the Yellow Pages (but please don’t send me there!) It might be that your information is not up to date, that your website doesn’t reflect what you are telling your Social Media person, or that it doesn’t really reflect who you are anymore. I tend to find when submitting proposals to clients, that the lead time for consulting is quite long. Usually long enough for them to fix their website, so they can work on getting people there.

When you start engaging and conversing with customers, suppliers or anyone that hasn’t previously heard of you,what they find on your site is static. So static it is so far out of date that you would be embarrassed if someone came up to you at a party and said that they saw your website and “I didn’t think you did that anymore”, or didn’t I see on your website that you had won that big account for ..(insert out of date and large company name here)”. Unfortunately, it happens all too often. I think part of the reason is that websites used to be really expensive to create. People think that they still are. Of course some of them if they were created long ago, will take either thousands of pounds to rectify, or thousands to make something new.

Let’s face it, you can no longer just hope to go with the website you created when your business was starting out, or the website you just had to have that was created with no money and just looks plain ugly, is completely dysfunctional and sends your customers screaming to your competitors. Sorry to share the news folks, but if your website looks like crap, Social Media won’t help you! As part of your “we had better have a social media consultant” budget, you may need to consider these other things:

  1. Is there money in that budget for a revamp, upgrade or total demolition and rebuild of your current website?
  2. What do you actually want your website and your social media campaign/strategy to do?
  3. Does it reflect your business, branding, customers, members, suppliers etc? Do you want it to?
  4. Are you doing SEO and link building? Do you need to – do you want to?
  5. What other online marketing strategies are you engaging in and do each one of your consultants know what the other one is doing?

Be prepared for change.

Yes, your website probably will change, unless it is already great and you are into this whole SEO/SEM digital marketing space. Well done you. You are the minority I can assure you. It is interesting when I go to industry events that are run and include mostly industry people, they don’t really realise that industries like hairdressers, dry cleaners, child care centres and stationers are not into any of these SEO/SEM antics!

I digress…I was talking about being prepared for change. I’m not just talking about changes to your website, but changes to your whole business. Once you start engaging with your customers (that is “listening and talking” to them by the way), they will start providing solutions or suggestions to your customer service problems, your structural or strategic issues. Nothing is off limits with social media. To be honest, I love that I can now have an input to any organisation on what MY opinion is. Personally, I never really needed Social Media for that. Of course they listen to me……….

Your business may well change. That was…your business may well change.

The way you deal with your staff, your customers, your suppliers could change. That will mean that people feel empowered to contribute to your business. This is not like telling someone how to parent their own children (boy, isn’t that a tough lesson to learn!?). As a consumer, you have the right to contribute your thoughts to your suppliers, partners and the businesses you frequent daily. They of course have the right to ignore you and do more often than not; at their peril. We all have the right to choose who we do business with, who our customers are and to say no sometimes to clients.

It is like getting a job. Don’t just be grateful that you got one, no matter how long it took you and how desperate you were. Think about what you can contribute, by all means, and make it a damn good contribution too, none of this turn up and be absent thank you! Contribute as if you were a valued member of staff. Then you can discuss with your employer just what they are bringing to the table. Your employment contract, like the contracts you have with your clients should be about relationships and should be about values – yours and theirs. If they don’t match, don’t go there. The stress mis-matched values costs you is far too great, even for the holy dollar, pound or yen.

That was me digressing again. Sorry!

I tell my customers and my prospects that one of the goals of Social Media is to drive integration with customers and share information. In this day and age, whilst we think it doesn’t always mean that, it means we will be driving traffic to your website. Are you ready to expose yourself like that?

I don’t do website modifications btw. I know some people I would refer you to, but part of my remit is not making people spend more money if they don’t have to. I don’t work like that.

It may sound to some that I am working on doing myself out of a job! This is about sharing information with people who are thinking about jumping head first into a Social Media campaign or strategy. I talk about whole of business strategy, not just a campaign. That means that you need to think about what your whole of business is saying, who you are saying it to, and how you are saying it.

Social media is not the panacea of all ills. It will create change for you, your business and your website. Are you ready for that?