Relationships are about trust, respect and building bridges. That is what my experience has taught me. It is NOT about undermining people and trying to catch them out. Don’t go looking for a smoking gun.
This is something one of my bosses hadn’t heard about or chose to ignore. Sandy was old school, but understood people and why they mattered to the company. At least he said he did.
As he once said, “The only asset an agency has is their people.” He often talked about how, as a key asset, they should be treated well and nurtured. I was therefore rather surprised about something he did which seemed counter to what he professed.
He was on a visit to our office in Germany where he had appointed me as General Manager several months earlier.
When I was out of the office, everyone joined together for a catered lunch. We were not a large office and so about 12 people gathered around the table with my boss holding court.
He was a great raconteur and had an exhaustive supply of tales. He also had a great sense of humor and most of the people around the table had been hired by him, all of which provided a jovial atmosphere.
Not many weeks before, I had participated in a 360º feedback process which was really interesting and taught me a great deal about how I was perceived. I had come from Coca-Cola where the corporate culture was very disciplined and you were made accountable.
The small agency I had joined was very different and it was taking me some time to adjust to this radically different culture. This had come out in the 360º as there were many negative comments about wanting to change things too quickly and wishing to provide more structure.
There were also some good comments and it had given me pause to think about how I was going about the change that both my client had requested and I realized needed to be made.
In the aftermath of my 360º, Sandy had decided to ask everyone how I was doing. Now, the problem with doing that kind of thing is it opens up a judgement on someone who isn’t there and can’t defend themself. It also allows anyone with an angle or hidden agenda to let rip. It does, in effect, give permission for people to openly criticize the boss!
Meanwhile, oblivious to the fact that I was about to be verbally mauled back in my office, I was finishing a dental treatment when I got a call. It was Georgie, the person from the office who thought she should have been made General Manager instead of me. We had experienced a rocky start.
After the normal phone call opening niceties she said, “When you get back to the office, I would like to talk to you privately.” I asked why and she said she’d prefer to wait until we met, which would be in about 20 minutes.
I pondered this on my drive back to the office, while the effects of the pain killing injection slowly wore off around my jaw.
I went straight to her office and she revealed to me what had happened in my absence. That, in effect, Sandy had declared the hunting season open on me and he appeared to be looking for a smoking gun.
As we talked, I was able to establish who had weighed in, and was not surprised with the key culprits. But I was more upset and felt betrayed by the fact that Sandy saw fit to do this in the first place. I felt betrayed, dismayed and undermined. I never forgot that feeling. I was incensed.
I was so incensed by this I decided I had to confront him about it. I did not handle this well. My confrontation with him was exactly that – confrontational. I marched into the office he was using, closed the door and then more or less demanded to know why he saw fit to have the open season on me while I was out of the office.
What transpired was an uncomfortable 15 minutes of an argument in which I could only lose, and did. He was after all the boss.
Unfortunately the experience scarred me and my future relationship with Sandy. But, I did learn from it.
Confrontation is often needed but confrontation can take many forms and head on is not normally the best one. I felt so bad about how it had gone, I stewed all evening and slept fitfully.
I was not worried about my job, at least not then. I had just been appointed and our only client had asked for me to be appointed to the job. Our revenue from them was a substantial eight figure sum.
No, I was worried about the affect it would have on the relationship with my team and Sandy. The glue between the team, Sandy and myself was not sticking.
So the next day, I asked Sandy whether we could have lunch together and during a 1½ hour discussion tried to handle it very differently.
I asked him why he had done what he did. He said he felt it would give him a good idea of the feeling since I had arrived. He said he had done this many times when he worked at McDonald’s.
I was appalled and said this was not the style I had been used to at Coca-Cola and explained to him how it made me feel. I then asked him how he would have felt if the role had been reversed. He was a little uncomfortable with this and I believe suddenly understood that this was not the best approach.
Sandy agreed to ensure the office knew he was backing me, but it still probably put me back a few months in regards to regaining the trust and respect with the team.
One good thing came out if it though. I found a friend and ally in Georgie. I respected her for telling me what had happened, as she also thought it wrong. Her coming forward and looking after my interests was a key moment in our relationship and she went on to help me make the changes that were needed.
Don’t go looking for a smoking gun, generate distrust or undermine your people. Everyone can lose.