In business, we’re taught to know our competitors and keep our opponents closer than our friends to excel. I lost track of the number of executive planning meetings where The Art of War, an ancient Chinese Military treatise by Sun Tsu, was prescribed as preparation to perform well on the business battlefields.
But, whether they be market competitors or allies or even colleagues, can we really know our business associates well enough to fine tune our strategies and execute our most challenging and crucial plans with—or despite—them? Is there a great way to take the TOUGH out of tough conversations?
Certainly, great preparation helps, so does a clear vision about your mission. But is it possible, practical or even wise to try and engage in a tough conversation in a more productive and maybe less adversarial way?
Next week, I will be on a panel about this topic of tough conversations at Brandon Hall Group’s Women in Leadership Summit, so I’ve been giving this some thought. I think it all depends on behavior.
How differently would you negotiate a contract, position your business for a round of investment, ask for a promotion, reorganize your team, or deliver a tough performance review if you had deeper insight into the person or people in the discussion…including you, yourself? For example, what if you knew: how they each solve problems, deal with ambiguity, work under pressure, process new information — could that change your tactics? Probably.
Know—and Advocate—For Yourself
In Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, she frames a question that I have often asked myself over my career as a business leader in high technology: What would you do if you weren’t afraid?
As our “Mission Imposter” research and my own experience have shown, often women in particular are more reticent to advocate for themselves. If they believe in any way that they are coming up short – as imposters—in their current positions, their self-doubt will render them less effective in negotiating for themselves or their teammates. Instead, they settle with “that’s the best I can get.”
While I don’t consider myself a fearful or timid person by any means, I do recognize that over my career, it’s been experience —and success—that has given me more confidence to be assertive with my point of view and proposals, whether they be for myself, my team or my business priorities.
I have also always been mindful of the importance of self-discovery and introspection about my areas of strength and weakness. I’ve used this, in turn, to be clear and intentional about my goals and have used that to help me negotiate from a place of power, a place of confidence in what I have and what I want.
In taking the SuccessFinder assessment, I learned even more about myself, and recognized that while I always knew I was extremely goal-oriented and empathetic, I also discovered that my relentlessness had a downside that I literally used all the time and energy I had in that pursuit, leaving me unable to recharge after a few years.
Now I look at my negotiations differently and align them with a better cadence for myself so that I can apply my passion within a more sustainable pace for a better, longer-term outcome.
Know Your Direct Reports
I have relatively new colleague who is very bright, an active philanthropist and a great team player. From what I’ve observed of her work and what I know about her from her resume and background, she’s a solid addition to the team, uses her empathy to be a great sounding board for others in her position of power. But I’ve also observed that she’s most comfortable taking a well-travelled approach to projects and defers to my lead to initiate new ideas.
So, my expectations and management of her have been as a reliable operator who requires lots of lead-time on projects and guidance on change.
She recently took the SuccessFinder assessment, and her results were eye-opening to me. On one hand, I was not surprised to learn that she has high scores on leadership, fraternity and service, but low scores on intuition, innovation, decisiveness and self-confidence. But she also has a very high complexity, analysis and structure scores – all attributes I definitely need more of on my team and in fact, I had been planning to recruit to find. In part, her confidence and low drive never compelled her to share her fantastic ability to collect, parse and intuit powerful insights from arcane, diverse sets of data, since it wasn’t part of her job description.
A lot of people in work situations don’t know each other past resume and work history. Uncovering this information on her abilities has been eye opening for her as well, resulting in a very different business dynamic requiring less oversight because she’s now working in her zone of brilliance.
Know —and Grow—Your Team
Perhaps one of the most powerful levels of insight is in taking a snapshot of the aggregate behavioral competencies—and weaknesses—of your team. What they can collectively accomplish will be key to your ability to grow, compete and pivot as the market shifts and changes.
When your team can’t perform optimally, that leads to the toughest conversations of all, the ones that end jobs and even businesses.
Today I use a team scorecard for a holistic awareness of my organization. This helps me see standard deviations across competencies from problem solving to dealing with stress, taking feedback and innovating.
As new members of a new company, my team has incredibly high scores in areas appropriate to our current needs: they are all highly competent in establishing alliances, managing stress, inspiring others and thriving in chaos. The places where we aren’t as strong, but will need to be in the coming years, is what I am focused on developing and hiring for next, including: innovation, establishing order and consensus building.
As always, I take note of what our most innovative customers are doing too. For example, we have a great client at a 350 person engineering company, Morrison Hershfield, that had done exceptionally well for years with a relatively stable, consistent business model and hiring profiles. But then when the competition and market landscape changed, it threatened to upend their business, so they prioritized a business and cultural shift that built/rebuilt its workforce toward its future goals.
Business is hard. But it doesn’t have to be a war of words with unnecessarily tough conversations. With smart preparation and awareness of the “behavioral DNA” of those around you, I think you can make peace —and prosperity—with your strategies for growth and success.
About the author: Susan Van Klink is the General Manager and Senior Vice President at SuccessFinder. A seasoned executive in the Human Resource software technology market, she has expertise in running operations, sales and strategy at leading companies including SuccessFactors, Taleo and Select Minds. A charismatic, driven and empathetic manager, Susan continues to build skills to support her innate behavioral DNA. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.