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Say WHAT - Now it’s Game On!

Updated: Apr 8, 2023

Over the course of hundreds of sessions, I’ve come to recognize patterns and themes in our coaching dialogs. After all, we’re not reinventing the wheel – we’re offering “the wheel” (tried-and-true useful tool) to folks who’ve been moving forward on their own steam, without much support until now. One theme that I’ve found to be especially powerful is what I refer to as “Game On!” In broad strokes, this is the idea that it’s time to get real. Time to take responsibility for your role and your work.

Time to exercise the power you might not know you have. Here are a few ways this concept has played out in my experience:

Power of the Pen

I’m not being heard. I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard that a coachee doesn’t feel heard. Even if it’s not baked into a company’s culture and operations, a perceived hierarchy can make people on the “lower” rungs feel that they have no agency and that their expertise counts for nothing. In one such situation, I found myself conducting an assessment among a group of reliability engineers at an oil refinery. Why a group, you might ask? In certain situations, people are more comfortable voicing their concerns in a group rather than one-on-one and we might start with a group session first.

So, we’re sitting around a table with some very cranky engineers. They’re complaining that they have no power since Operations doesn’t listen to them; they’re disrespected, no validation. They report that they’ve told Operations not to run a certain pump – it wasn’t safe, it wasn’t calibrated, it wasn’t tested. But Ops turns around and starts the pump anyway…

At this point in the conversation, the VP for Reliability stands up and slams his pen on the conference table. He’s tired of listening to a bunch of cry-babies! He tells them that they do have power – the Power of the Pen. To deliver facts. To document the situation with reports, work orders, written communications. And that this is serious stuff. As they well know, there will be consequences to these decisions, sometimes even deaths. People die in oil refineries! There will be hell to pay and heads will roll, and without documentation, you could wind up being the scapegoat. You have the power of the pen and you better use it, so when something bad happens, you have something to fall back on.

Here’s another example: a facility engineer identifies a fault in a bearing. He informs the plant manager, and directs them to take the equipment offline. But the plant manager refuses – “Sit down, it’s my facility and I run it!” Well, the bearing does fail, and this shuts down the entire plant for weeks to repair multiple equipment failures, costing tens of thousands of dollars. However, since the engineer had been smart enough to have the manager sign off on his decision, the engineer keeps his job. The plant manager loses theirs. When you have the discipline to document decisions you might disagree with, you shift the power dynamic.

Even I’ve found myself in this position. For six months I sat on a construction project where I could see that with the way the various contracts were written, they were building a facility with literally no way to get in or out. Different contractors had different responsibilities, and the contractor that had the responsibility of cutting the doors and windows wasn’t attending our weekly meetings. For those six months, at every meeting, I asked about exits and entrances, and each time I was told that they had it all taken care of. Then came the day when the buildings were completely closed in. All the crews stopped. The cranes stopped. Construction stopped. In a million-square-foot facility, no work could continue. Luckily, when the Civil Engineering VP asked why this problem hadn’t been dealt with earlier, I had the minutes from every weekly meeting to show him – including his own word that the issue would be handled!

I’m getting pulled in too many directions. The power of the pen applies to all kinds of situations, not just documenting risk. Another common complaint I hear is about an ever-shifting, often amorphous scope of work. You might be familiar with how this goes…your client taps you on the shoulder and says, “I need you to stop what you’re working on, and do x-y-z for me.” It’s the end of the quarter, and you push to get it done. Because they asked. But this work isn’t part of the contract and schedule, and meanwhile, the scheduled work isn’t getting done.

The problem is, when it comes to getting paid, your client conveniently forgets about the shoulder-tap and you’re held to your contractual obligations. You might not even get compensated for the “shoulder-tap” work. The solution? Don’t just go along to get along. Here again, having the discipline to document the process can save a lot of agitation. An email memorializing changes in direction and scope can go a long way toward managing your workload. You can do it respectfully, but do it!

When our coachees commit themselves to disciplined documentation, remarkable things start to happen. Often, they get in touch months later to share their success stories. They’ve noticed how dynamics shift and relationships become easier to manage. The bottom line? Don’t assume you don’t have any power, because you do. And it begins with the power of the pen.

This is Normal

A lot of our coachees have only recently taken on more responsibilities or positions of leadership. They’re eager to please, and eager to prove that they’re capable of their new role. But this is uncharted territory for them, and the challenges they face are unprecedented. Sometimes all they need is to know that “this is normal” – this is business as usual for people at this level, and there are some tried and true ways of dealing with these issues.

I’ve got to keep the client happy. I was working with a newly-promoted project manager in a tech consultancy. She’d just come out of a tense meeting with her difficult, rather manipulative client. This client pushed everyone’s buttons, hurling unreasonable demands at the team. Some of her younger team members leapt into action, trying to soothe their agitated client. Unfortunately, they made a lot of promises that were beyond the scope of their remit. By the time I met with her later that day, panic had set in. What just happened and what did they just commit to?

I let her know that this is normal. There are always going to be clients who try to take advantage and secure more work than they’re willing to pay for. That’s what contracts are for. So, let’s navigate what happened. Review your contract to understand it and gain perspective on the situation. Let your director know what happened. The two of you can approach the real players on the client side to diffuse the problem, and realign with the terms of the contract. Often, engaging your client’s leadership can right the ship. Take a breath and let the cycle take its course.

This was just one stressful situation during a week chock full of them. This particular client was a real bully. When he felt he wasn’t getting his way, he went into attack mode, questioning my coachee’s credibility and abilities. It felt personal, and it was painful for her. The thing is, this was just part of the same picture. It wasn’t personal; it was business as usual – and unfortunately, this is normal for some cultures and clients (they can squeeze a lot out of a project). It’s a typical tactic of bullies. I’ve been subjected to my share of floor-wiping, and so has everyone else. Calm down, and duck out of the line of fire next time. Know that this might well happen again, but these incidents don’t define you. Take a step back, and learn what you can from every experience, client, and cultural norm.

When that week passed and the dust had settled, she’d worked through the problems and learned an important lesson: shit happens, and it happens to everybody…keep calm and deal with it!

Will I get the promotion? Kevin, one of my clients, came into a session with a very different vibe than typical for him. His energy level was way down, and he was unusually reserved. I asked what was going on. Well, it was performance review time and he was anxious about a desired promotion. He’d been passed over last time -- would it happen again? “Listen to me! You are fine,” I said, “DO NOT let this define you. Know yourself, chill out, and be sure your boss has good information.”

I asked him to talk it through with me. What were his goals? Commitments? Project statuses? And so on…He assured me that his manager knew how he was doing on all of it. Really? How will he present you for review? What if he only has 60 seconds to communicate? Imagine that the reviewers are evaluating hundreds of people. Make sure your managers have all the information they need to support you in the system of record! We took a look at their project management system with this in mind – how would others see and use the information about Kevin that’s in there?

Whether you get a promotion now or later, it’s okay, and it’s not personal. (Well, there’s the rub, it’s not personal, but it is personal.) Just learn, and grow, and take action. But first and foremost, make sure that your reviewers’ decisions are based on the right information.

Note to leadership: silence is deafening! People crave feedback. Silence will eat people alive…

Toughen Up

It makes sense that my newly-promoted coachees want their clients to be happy and satisfied. But sometimes going “above and beyond” can be counterproductive. It’s very useful to have a sense of when to really push for a client, and when to push back. That’s where the mantra of Toughen Up comes in…

But my client needs this. One very driven, very proactive coachee repeatedly canceled our meetings last minute even though I knew he really valued our time together. It seemed he was always in the weeds. My first instinct was to help him with his time management skills, but as soon as I asked what he was working on, I noticed something else: he was working on solutions that had very little to do with his current project. Why was he spending his time on this stuff? “Well, it’s not in our current scope, but I know the client needs this…so I’ll just get it done and move on.”

“What?! Tell me more about this. You’re doing it because…why? Do you want to seem like a nice guy? Do you love to work for free? Is it in the contract?”

“Well, no, I know that they need it, but they don’t have it in the budget…”

“BS! Think about this client and this project – the size of it all, the huge resources they have. Get real. It’s your life, but why would you want to work for free? You might even be cannibalizing your future contracts by doing out-of-scope work now. And if you work for free, your clients will get used to it.”

This is a great example of empathy gone wrong. Just because you see what someone needs, doesn’t mean you have to fix it for them at your own expense. And whether it’s you or other members of your team doing this work for free, it’s not really yours to give. You’re not authorized to give away your company’s services. This is business! It’s time to toughen up.

It’s an emergency. Paval missed one of our sessions because he had a work emergency. At our next meeting, I asked him about it. He explained that there had been a system problem with the client’s integration, and it was an ongoing issue. They’d lost tons of architectural drawings, documents, and data that they were still trying to recover. When I asked what had happened to the system, he couldn’t give me an answer. He also couldn’t tell me where the problem was, or whose responsibility it was.

I asked him what the contract specified. Um…there wasn’t a signed contract. It was still being negotiated, and they were having difficulty satisfying all the stakeholders. Whoa! I called a time-out. On a Friday night he’d worked well into the next morning without a contract? Was there any agreed-upon recovery strategy? What’s the scope of the problem? How much lost data are we talking about? Well, it was bad, and the client had no idea just how bad it was. There would be a meeting tomorrow morning about the situation.

My advice to Paval? Don’t try to quantify the minutiae of the problem in that meeting when there’s no contract in place. Yes, there’s a real problem, but it’s not clear that it’s your problem. In fact, it’s probably not, and if you shine a light on it, it’s like you’re inviting them to dump it on your lap. Now, perhaps, you have the leverage you need to for a formal engagement. If they recognize the urgency of the situation, they might be ready to iron out a scope of work for you and your team. Paval breathed a sigh of relief, “Geez, I’m glad we talked. I’d fallen into my habit of just dealing with any problem I identify, but I see that I don’t need to just jump in. It’s not whether I can do the work, but whether I should do it. Now I have a different approach for the meeting. If they want me to take care of it, they’ll have to sign on the dotted line. Thank you!”

This kind of thing happens all the time. Good, smart people often do what they believe is the right thing, but they’re setting unhealthy precedents. They’re providing free work without any guarantee of eventual payment. They could be missing opportunities for contractual work. They might even be incurring liability by acting outside of an agreed-upon game plan. Don’t let your client’s panic become yours. Toughen up.

It must be something I said. Another challenge new managers face is how to build and keep a good team. Here, too, knowing what’s “normal” can go a long way toward maintaining your equilibrium…Shilpa, recently promoted to an IT directorship, was excited about building her team, and she quickly promoted a relatively new entry-level person. He’d been doing great at the tasks he was assigned, so she gave him a generous raise and more responsibility. Two weeks later, he abruptly resigned. Shilpa was surprised and disappointed. She felt she’d mishandled the situation, but didn’t know how.

Was Shilpa sure that he was happy with the job? He seemed so, but when she asked around later, she found out he was bored. He didn’t want to keep doing the same kind of work, but more cross-experience. However, he hadn’t said anything to her about this. How was she supposed to know how he was feeling? She hadn’t noticed any warning signs.

It’s always disappointing to lose a good employee, but the fact is that interns and entry-level people are bound to cycle in and out. You can check in, see how they’re feeling and what they want, but not everyone is going to be a perfect fit -- and that’s okay. Not everyone will rise within your team, and some will move on. Let it go; get good at finding promising candidates, developing their talents, and building your team, and don’t stress about the ones that don’t work out. I worked with Shilpa to craft an onboarding document designed to ramp folks up at the functional level, so now she has a practical and prudent tool to build for the future. She’s also toughened up to accept and address what’s bound to happen. It’s business. It’s life.

Behavioral Questions

All too often, the hiring process can be very frustrating: a long, laborious vetting of candidates and final selection of someone who appears to possess the necessary skillset, only to find that they never really fit in and are quickly out the door. I hear so many complaints about employee churn and quick turnover -- in stark contrast to interviewing, selection, and onboarding processes that seem to take forever. It’s a whole lot of investment of time and energy for nothing.

Learning how to build a solid team is essential to a new leadership position, and it can require a real re-set of your approach. The first thing we want to look at is what you’re actually asking of your candidates. Time and time again I’ve seen interviewers asking leading questions and hearing the answers they want to hear, but never really getting to the real-life habits of their potential hires. We’ve all known people who possess the technical skills required to do the job, but their behavior makes working with them close to impossible. So where do we start? I’ve put together a list of over a hundred questions designed to elicit insights about a candidate’s behavior in typical situations. These aren’t yes or no questions, or questions where someone can easily guess what the “right” answer is. They’re intended to spark responses that reveal how someone will behave when challenged on the job.

When they’re about to conduct an interview, I ask my coachees to choose three to five of these questions with care. Think about a candidate’s expected maturity level, style, and experience. Don’t ask entry-level questions of non-entry level positions, and so on. During the interview, actively listen to the responses and probe for actual examples of relevant situations. Really try to get to know the person! For example, I might ask a potential hire to describe the characteristics of a successful manager. This could lead to a conversation about management style, pet peeves, recent wins and losses, and a deeper understanding of the candidate’s various roles over the course of their career. Or maybe I’d ask which is more important to them: creativity or efficiency, and why. A non-threatening, free-flowing discussion about questions like these can go a long way toward understanding what it will feel like to have this person as a colleague.

The typical feedback I get is overwhelmingly positive. For both interviewer and interviewee, it was “the best interview ever.” Both sides get valuable information to help them make a strong decision. The questions don’t feel like a performance piece or a waste of time, and the candidate wasn’t being asked to clear hurdles they’d already proven they could handle. Instead, an unstructured conversation sparked by these well-crafted questions revealed subtle, important nuances about how working with this particular candidate in this particular environment would actually play out.

Learn to Negotiate

So much has been said and written about the art of negotiation! It’s a truly fascinating subject. But few of us really understand the process, the tactics, and the consequences when we’re “in it.” In fact, we often don’t even recognize that we’re in the middle of a negotiation until we’re picking up the pieces afterwards and feeling like we got the raw end of the deal.

Pretty much any and all human exchanges can be characterized as negotiations, and these can range from simple to complex. And if you’re not paying attention, the simple can become much more complicated.

Peter worked at a prestigious hardware store, renowned for its high-quality products and stellar customer service. An older couple had purchased an expensive woodstove along with installation. Once they started using it, something went wrong – some embers escaped, and burned a hole in their carpet. Peter, the manager, only heard about this when the problem had escalated from multiple customer service calls to a pending lawsuit, an expensive and worrying prospect. Customer service insisted nothing was wrong with the stove. The customers contended that a faulty stove had ruined their carpet. Peter turned to a professional negotiator, who offered to speak with the couple.

The negotiator went to the customers’ home and looked at the carpet and stove. The carpet was indeed burned, but the stove seemed to be working fine. They agreed that the stove seemed fine now, but were adamant that it was “the stove’s fault” that the carpet was burned. He asked them what they wanted and how he could help. They exchanged some uncomfortable glances and finally spoke up – maybe a throw rug would cover the burnt spot and offer some protection against errant embers? They drove to a local carpet store together, bought an area rug, and covered the hole. Problem solved. You don’t have to be brilliant when negotiating, but try not to be stupid. It can get really costly when people take silly stances for mysterious reasons.

When you find yourself negotiating, keep your eye on the prize. It doesn’t matter who’s wrong or right as long as your client leaves the table feeling heard. There are countless skills, tactics, and strategies that can help, so let’s dig in and get familiar with them.

Time Management

Often, the managers “holding the bag” are highly motivated to get the work done – whatever it takes – to keep the client happy. But does the rest of their team share their can-do attitude? So many of my coachees ask how they can ask a lot of their team without damaging the relationships, demotivating them, or getting them angry.

Wait a second! What I’m hearing is: I’m willing to break my back, neglect my family, compromise myself to keep my client happy. How do I get my team to make the same sacrifices? Wrong question. If you burn yourself out, soon you’re of no value to anyone. Know your time and energy and resources. And learn how to make the most of them.

Leadership is about knowing your priorities and making the most of the resources, time, and energy available to you. And there are many strategies that can help. One of the most useful frameworks I use is known as the Eisenhower Matrix. It’s named after President Eisenhower because he had some profound insight into time management. In his own words, “Who can define for us with accuracy the difference between the long and short term! Especially when our affairs seem to be in crisis, we are almost compelled to give our first attention to the urgent present rather than to the important future.”

We’ve all been there: putting out every fire that crops up in front of us while we neglect our most important long-term goals. By taking a step back and asking whether something’s not only urgent, but also important, we’re able to reassess where our attention is most needed. So, when you’re juggling too many demands, ask yourself: is it urgent and important? Not urgent, but important? And please don’t ask your team -- or yourself -- to stay up all night working on something that’s urgent, but not important!


ClearPeg was founded in 2021 around a vision of helping people maximize their potential through coaching. Learn more >

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