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When to play your quiet inner voice like a broken record

Expressing stress to a client can be fatal to the project, and habitually suppressing it can lead to rapid burnout. How do you clear the ground so you can face the client with confidence?

Question: After working for a major consultancy for some time, three years ago some colleagues and I decided to set up a small independent firm so that we could work in the way we wanted. Most of our clients are SMEs with high growth potential.

I have, or thought I had, a medium-sized client in the bespoke software development business. Until recently, their growth has been good but erratic and lacking clear direction. This is because the MD’s current interests and enthusiasms have largely driven sales. (He has a large minority equity stake, and tends to be rather charismatic.)

From our earliest discussions, it was clear that their current rate of growth was not sustainable without significant change. Simply recruiting extra resources was not going to work. For several weeks I have been talking with the MD about setting up a programme to improve profitability and get business development onto a sound footing. This was to include a development programme involving several key staff and take up a substantial proportion of my time for several weeks.

In designing the programme, I have been talking with the office and commercial manager. When we spoke the other day she made it clear that the MD was having second thoughts. He had more or less said to her that, in the current climate, they could not afford the development programme, and it would be better and simpler to recruit a sales representative straight away.

I tried not to show it, but I can’t tell you how furious I was. My informant knew that I would be concerned, but she doesn’t know the half of it. Not doing this work is going to leave a serious hole in our income for the next few months, and I feel very stupid for not seeing this coming. I have a scheduled meeting set up with the MD early next week, and I am really worried that I will lose my rag and tell him what I think of him. How can I get him to see sense?

Answer: This situation rings a lot of bells with me, and I suspect it will for others too, so perhaps it is worth sharing something that happened to me.

When I was first starting out as an independent, I was negotiating for my first piece of substantial work. In my case, there were two directors who had attended an external programme I had run, liked what they had experienced, and asked me – each for their own reasons – to work with their specialist service company. It was a wholly owned subsidiary of a large engineering group set up to be a profit centre.

David, the managing director, was the smooth-talking sales type who had been to Harvard on a mid-career programme and knew all the buzzwords of the time. Frank was the very down to earth technical director, intelligent, but with something of a chip on his shoulder. He earned great loyalty from his staff, but he was rather opinionated and did not have such a good image with his clients.

The biggest chunk of work was going to be with Frank’s people. There was a great deal of talent, but it tended to be shunted into non-critical areas. This was because people who had been around for a long time were hogging the biggest and most expensive projects on the grounds that they had special expertise and experience. But these projects were overrunning, failing to deliver, and costing a great deal of money for what they produced. The idea was to explore ways of opening up these projects to disciplined and professional management, while retaining expertise where it was actually needed.

To say that I was depending on this contract coming to fruition would be an understatement, so when Frank called me to say that he had a memo from David on his desk saying the company needed to tighten its belt and henceforth all first class travel, several other minor expenditure items and, crucially, management development would be cut, I felt humiliated and very angry. My mood was not improved when Frank told me about David’s blunt and dismissive attitude when he had raised the matter with him. So much for client rapport!

My first move was to call David’s secretary to ask for a meeting before the end of the week, which to my surprise I got. Then I had to think what to do.

The problem was I was so angry I couldn’t think straight. I really wanted to tell him what I thought of him but to do so would have been fatal to the project and my reputation. I needed a way to express what I was feeling so that I could get it out of the way and not carry it into the meeting, leaving me clear to think about what I was going to say.

I knew of a technique used in personal development called ‘empty chair’ which I had seen used, and used myself. It’s quite simple. You sit opposite an empty chair and imagine that someone with whom you have a grievance is sitting there. It helps to have one or more witnesses (sitting safely to one side) but the idea is that you verbally let rip at your imaginary opponent until the anger subsides. Then you can think.

Fortunately I had someone I could trust to witness my display of self-righteous anger. I imagined David sitting in the empty chair and told him exactly what I thought of him, often employing very short Anglo-Saxon words. I told him that if he weren’t such an incompetent and arrogant manager he would not have this problem in the first place, and that he had completely the wrong attitude towards his people – and so on. I went on in similar vein for about five minutes, hardly pausing for breath.

When the sound and fury finally subsided, it went very quiet. My witness and companion wisely said nothing. There was only the sound of gentle breathing. Then, in my imagination, I heard a very quiet inner voice ask a simple question, and I knew what I had to do at the meeting.

The day of the meeting came. David was polite and explained in much more reasonable tones than he had used with Frank, exactly why the expenditure needed to be cut. A new director from the main board had been appointed to oversee the performance of the subsidiary and he was demanding that David run a tight ship and produce solid growth in business.

I adopted my best understanding manner, and fed back to David exactly what I had heard. In fact, I was so eloquent in restating his case, it was a good job I had my question carefully prepared, otherwise I would have given up in the face of overwhelming odds. At the end of my summary I paused. David was clearly wondering what I could possibly say, so I stated my question.

“David, I understand exactly why you feel the need to make these cuts, but what I don’t understand is how you are going to achieve the business performance if you don’t develop your people to change the way you do things here.”

David did not answer the implied question. Instead, he told me once again why the cuts had to be made.

In turn, I played it back to him and then stated the problem just as before, “What I don’t understand is…”

This happened two or three times. Eventually he changed tack, “Frank tells me that if we don’t go ahead with this project, it will place you in some difficulty.” David was no fool; he was angling to provoke a response that would undermine my authority in the situation.

To this day I am not quite sure how I maintained my cool, but my mind went blank except for one thing. Since then, I’ve read Felix Dennis, a successful publisher, talking about his toughest facedowns and found it reassuring to discover that his experience was very similar. I just said, “My situation is not really the point here. What I don’t understand is how you are going to achieve the business performance if you don’t develop your people to change the way you do things here.”

I really don’t know what happened then. All I remember is that David went to the fridge in his office and got out two beers, as he did so, I got out the letter of intent that I had prepared in advance and his secretary took it away and retyped it on their letterhead for him to sign and me to take away. The project turned out to be interesting and successful.Final