Updated: Nov 17, 2022
So, recently I worked with the CEO of a company in the US...
They're in tech, and although I've never worked in tech, I know people who have... and it's not for everyone.
It's a fast-paced and HIGH INTENSITY industry.
The CEO (Natalie) brought me in to help with an underperforming employee (Lisa).
Straight away I KNEW something wasn't right.
So, Natalie tells me (in confidence... and I've changed the details of this story so don't worry!) how fed up the exec team is with Lisa's performance.
They're frustrated with her slow pace, she's not displaying the attention to detail needed for key projects and she has a 'sit back and relax' attitude when what they need from someone in her position is an 'above and beyond' attitude.
I'm told they're ready to let her go. Or maybe put her on a performance management plan. It's that serious.
Effectively, she's about to get FIRED.
Before they pull the trigger, Natalie wants my opinion on the situation. After listening to a detailed explanation of all the moving parts, I asked some questions:
- How clear is Natalie about HER OWN expectations for Lisa?
- How clear is Lisa on NATALIE'S expectations for her in this role?
- What small battles have taken place so far where Natalie or others have held Lisa accountable for her poor performance?
I had a fourth question ready, "When you had these small battles, was Lisa 'surprised' by the news you weren't happy with her performance?"
But I couldn't ask it...
Because they hadn't had ANY small battles with Lisa.
She hadn't even had the CHANCE to be surprised by any small battles!
Her poor performance had built up over time and the exec team had watched getting more and more frustrated but no one had gone there and had a crucial conversation with her.
So I explained to Natalie the main reason it wasn't working out for them with Lisa.
I told her about the importance of expectations as a foundation for any accountability and performance management.
I explained why any 'surprise' from an employee's perspective is a massive red flag and can mean legal issues and, more importantly, a defensive employee who then can't hear any constructive feedback!
The key is to have a crucial conversation around EXPECTATIONS rather than a crucial conversation where you go straight to firing someone or putting them on a performance management plan.
I was surprised when she listened to me!
It seemed to make perfect sense to her, so she changed her approach and decided to have a conversation about expectations with Lisa as a next step instead of going for the jugular.
Armed with my pointers and a verbal explanation of my framework for dealing with difficult people, Natalie organised a meeting with Lisa...
When they met, Lisa was a little guarded (and rightfully so—she hadn't had ANY feedback for so long and now all of a sudden a meeting with the CEO?).
Yet, once Natalie started the way I encouraged her to start - by apologising for a lack of clear expectations around Lisa's role - Lisa let her guard down.
Natalie asked her for her thoughts on the expectations around her role and it turned out Lisa was aware of some of the issues around detail (which the exec saw), but apart from that felt like she was doing okay...
After they'd talked for a while about how clear the expectations had been SO FAR, it was time for Natalie to paint a picture of the future with vulnerability (which I'd talked her through the day before).
"Look, I think highly of you. I see great potential in you in this role, actually. But the role in coming months is going to increase in pace and intensity. I want to tell you that upfront, because it WILL mean different expectations than the ones I've admittedly not articulated to this point. However, I think you can do it and my commitment is to clarify the expectations with you together and then to cheer you on, push you and hold you accountable to smash them out of the park."
There was a long pause of silence...
Lisa was clearly taking this in with seriousness and Natalie wasn't sure if silence was a good thing or a bad thing.
Then Natalie remembered what I'd told her to do next at this point.
"You know what, let's spend a bit of time now going over what the expectations will be to get even clearer together. But I don't want you to commit to them now. I'm aware these are different from what you've been living to this point, so why don't you have some time after this meeting to digest everything and then we can touch base again in a few days?"
Lisa's eyes lit up at that. Clearly she had some sort of thinking to do and appreciated the permission to do that before committing to all of this new information.
They went on to articulate some of the expectations - a mixture of things already known and some which turned out to be a complete surprise to Lisa! Then they wrapped up the meeting and went their separate ways.
I thought Natalie had done an amazing job, but what happened next took both of us completely by SURPRISE...
Natalie turned up to work the next day as usual but at around 10 in the morning, she heard a knock at her door.
It was Lisa.
"Hey... Thanks for yesterday. I know you gave me time to think about it, and I know you're super busy, but any chance we can catch up again today to discuss?"
Natalie was initially caught off guard but pulled herself together, opened her calendar and they scheduled a catch up over lunch for 12:30pm.
Lisa walked out and Natalie got straight on the phone to me.
"What do I do?! Do you think Lisa's been stressing about it all night and is going to rake me over the coals for not clarifying expectations sooner?"
I honestly didn't know what to say...
We decided there was no point making up scenarios before they'd happened, so we left it there and I asked Natalie to call me straight after the meeting to tell me what happened.
12:30pm came around and Natalie and Lisa went downstairs to have lunch together at one of the cafes in their building.
After they'd ordered, they sat down and Natalie opened the floor to Lisa to see why she wanted to catch up so soon.
"Well... I appreciated what you said yesterday. Like I said, I feel like I've been doing okay, but in truth... I've been missing my old world when I was working in manufacturing."
Natalie didn't know what to make of that, so she just said, "Oh..."
Lisa continued, "Yesterday got me thinking. I see where the company is going and even though I've been doing okay in my role, I just don't think I... want... yeah that's the right word. I just don't want to have to perform day in day out at that pace and intensity. I think it will be too much for me..."
Natalie listened intently and they chatted a little about the bombshell Lisa had just dropped before Natalie asked, "So, what would you like to do?"
Lisa paused and then smiled nervously, "If it's okay, even though I love this place and there's elements of my role I've really enjoyed... would you consider working with me over a couple of months to help me transition back into manufacturing while also bringing someone in and training them up to replace me in my role?"
Natalie sighed. She had to admire Lisa's courage to ask.
"Of course Lisa. In the same way, we appreciate having you around and would miss you but I think you're being courageous making a decision like this and I not only support it, but can definitely support you in hopefully doing a great transition back into manufacturing."
The rest of the meeting was a blur to Lisa.
But afterwards, when she was out of the office and away from earshot! She jumped on the phone to me and explained what had happened.
I couldn't believe it.
It was one of those moments where you KNOW something is true but it takes it to another level when you see it LIVED OUT in front of you.
I've been coaching leaders like Natalie for OVER five years now. I've worked with leaders in Australia (where I'm based), the US, Canada, India, the UK, New Zealand and more.
PLUS, I've interviewed more than 1,400 leaders through our 7 questions on leadership to find out what makes leaders tick, what their greatest challenges are and what their goals, ideas and initiatives are for the near future.
In my one-on-one coaching sessions - and when my team analysed the data from the answers of 1,400 leaders - there's ONE topic that comes up more than any other.
"How do I deal well with (insert difficult person) even though I hate conflict?"
In my coaching sessions, I then take leaders through my 3-step process for dealing with difficult people so they step up or step out in FOUR WEEKS.
I show them how they can deal well with difficult people WITHOUT experiencing a massive conflict where everyone loses.
I was explaining my 3-step process so often that I decided to turn it into a BOOK.
So that leaders like you who aren't sitting across from me in a one-on-one coaching session can follow exactly the same process I've used and leaders like Natalie have used to deal well with difficult people.
You can get my book here:
Oh, and if you implement this process like Natalie did, and experience something similar (usually it takes up to four weeks, not the next day, that's why we were so shocked by Natalie's story!)... PLEASE let me know.
I love to hear success stories from my readers!