Are You Afraid of Having Difficult Conversations?

Mark Murphy | | Courage

Most people who are not CEOs believe that those of us who are have received some type of a magical drug. They assume that, because we deal with conflict every day, we are really good at having difficult conversations. So much so, we probably enjoy them. When one of our VPs screw up, they assume we march right into their office and let them know in clear and unambiguous terms that such outcome is never to happen again!


Welcome to Humanity

Well, most of the CEOs that I know did not receive that magical medication. They struggle, like anyone else would, to have direct conversations with underperformers. Most get frustrated, mumble about it under their breath, share their frustration with others, occasionally drop a snide comment to the offending executive, or may even check a lower box on their review accompanied by a very subtle message in the description. Often, they come to a gradual boil until one day, a straw breaks the camel’s back and they let the executive have the full poison cocktail that has been stirring inside of them.

Whether you have a good performer who needs to grow in some areas to become promotable again or a struggling executive who needs improvement to stay in his/her current position, these conversations are an opportunity for your leadership to contribute greatly to the growth of the company and to those executives whose careers have been entrusted to you.

How Do You View These Conversations?

These types of confrontations have been described as challenging, difficult, fierce, and unpleasant. They often occur as something we “really need to do,” but for whatever reason, don’t naturally rise to the top of our To Do list. I would suggest renaming these conversations with more attractive and appropriate descriptors such as gifts, contributions, expressions of commitment, and opportunities. After all, if the Board of Directors was growing disgruntled with your performance as CEO and you could choose between them speaking directly with you about their concerns or waiting until they got fed up and firing you, which would you choose? Which would be the greater gesture of commitment, contribution and gift to you? Exactly.

Also, most of us view these conversations as the CEO against the VP. An alternate view is the CEO and VP addressing (together) the issue that’s holding them (collectively) back. Like teammates discussing their strategy for getting through the offensive line of their opponent. By viewing these interactions as both of us sitting on the same side of the table, wanting the same successful outcome, and constructively addressing the issue, it changes our view of the conversation we are contemplating having.

Don’t Get Personal

One risk of any of these conversations is that the Executive hears s/he’s not good enough, or smart enough, or even that you just don’t like him/her. The more personal the conversation becomes (about the individual and his/her weaknesses), the less likely it is that conversation will remain productive and be able to be “heard” by the other party.

One way to address this is to stay zealously focused on the needs of the company, both now and in the future. This can be done by keeping the conversation in the third person with regard to requirements and then making it individual-specific only in the gap analysis.

Example 1, a conversation might sound like this with Jane, your VP of Sales:

Jane, as you know, the Board and I have set a growth objective for the Company of 9% per year. To do this, we will have to penetrate the XYZ sector as well as gain 2% share in our base market annually. The company’s VP of Sales (3rd person) needs to: 1. Hire the right leader in the XYZ sector 2. Retool our distribution base, and 3. Be face to face with our customers and prospects at least 40% of the time.

(Gap analysis). I have absolute trust that you will be able to retool our existing distributor base. I am concerned that our search for the XYZ sector leader is not progressing. And, your travel schedule is nowhere near 40% in front of customers.

My commitment to the board of 9% growth is not negotiable. And we both know that the right Sales Executive can produce all three of these results. I want to talk about your and my confidence in your ability and willingness to fulfill the requirements of this critical position. I will do anything I can to support you, but in the end, I need to be able to rely on my VP of Sales to deliver. What are your thoughts?

Obviously, in a limited format such as this article, I am driving pretty straight to the point. In real life, I would not take Jane to job jeopardy in 3 paragraphs. But the technique of keeping it about the business objectives is clear.

Example 2 – focuses on her individual weaknesses or poor performance by saying:

Jane, I want to have a conversation with you about why you are late on hiring the XYZ sector leader and why you are not travelling enough.

In the Example 1 conversation, the focus is on the results and desired end state, not on Jane’s deficiencies.

Judging whether to view the conversations differently or making them less personal is a better approach, is for you to consider. But as CEO, regardless of what approaches you take, your next indicated step is an honest and straightforward conversation with the VP of Sales about delivering the required results. What is preventing you from taking that step?

Recognize Your Choice, Either Way

Not having a difficult conversation is to choose a way that maintains the status quo. Having the conversation is also a choice. Courage to act decisively comes from recognizing the pros and cons of each decision. Whatever choice you make, make it consciously. Intentionally. Don’t let it be made for you because of passive inaction.

Forward motion comes when the attraction to the desired end state overcomes the comfort of the status quo and the fear of challenging it. The greater your clarity about what’s at stake, the greater pull it creates and the more courage you will have initiating those difficult conversations (I mean gifts of commitment ☺)!

Mark Murphy

Mark Murphy is an Advisor to CEOs and a Vistage Group Chair serving chief executive officers throughout Orange County, California. Contact Mark Today
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