Dealing with a Colossal Miscommunication
Beverly Flaxington is a practice management consultant. She answers questions from advisors facing human resource issues. To submit yours, email us here.
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I am the COO for a fairly large advisory firm. I get along fine with the founder and leader, “Jim.” We meet regularly and make decisions mostly together. He is respectful toward me, as am I with him.
We have an important issue that needs to be addressed in terms of who will be our lead CIO for the firm. Our CIO is retiring and we have two candidates in place who could be the successor. Our investment process is very rigorous and developed, so we don’t need a lot in the role.
Jim and I met and I thought we had agreed on one of the internal people who would be groomed to first step into a co-CIO role and then the lead CIO role within the next nine months. Jim and I spoke about timing and coaching opportunities. We spoke with the current CIO (the soon-to-be retiree) and he validated our decision.
I had an initial conversation with the person we chose, “Alex.” Yesterday the other person, “Cheryl,” came into my office and asked me what she needed to do to prepare for taking over the CIO role for the firm when our existing CIO retires. I was shocked, and then she said Jim had spoken with her and had said he thought it was important we were showing diversity and promoting a woman into the role!
I could have been convinced that Cheryl was the better person. But Jim and I did the follow up with our current CIO and we agreed we were supporting Alex in this move.
I have a lot of egg on my face with Alex, and I could tell that Cheryl sensed my uncomfortable response. She likely thinks I didn’t go to bat for her.
I’m so bothered by this that I don’t know a reasonable way to approach Jim. I am prepared for him to say we didn’t fully decide and that this is the best decision for the firm going forward.
Do I let this go? Do I confront him? What if he makes it seem like I was the one who stepped out of bounds by speaking with Alex?
Mismatches in communication and misunderstandings and assumptions among colleagues are one of the biggest problem areas in large and small firms. There are a number of things that could have happened here. You could be “right” and the original conversation went like this, and then Jim read something or someone talked to him about the importance of diversity or he had a great conversation with Cheryl and believed her to be the better candidate or she got wind of the decision and went to make her case to Jim. Whatever happened, Jim decided to go in a different direction.
Alternatively, you could have “heard” something that was not yet definitive and acted upon it when Jim was still needing to consider options and figure out what was best for the firm overall. If this was the case, it’s unfortunate that he did not consult you or let you know he was speaking to Cheryl.
It sounds like there was not a clearly defined follow-up after the meeting you and Jim had together. I know this is a confidential discussion, but something should have been put in writing to make sure you were both in agreement about what you had decided so far and what would happen next.
Then there should have been a who, what, when, how plan laid out between the two of you. Who was speaking to the current leader? Who was speaking to Alex/Cheryl? When were they doing this? What would be the check-in between the two of you? I know this sounds so very basic but it is necessary even among the most seasoned professionals who think they fully understand each other and the situation. Taking the time to do this is important to establish everyone is in alignment.
What do you do about this situation? It provides you a chance to debrief with Jim and figure out where things went awry. You say you have mutual respect. I’d start there saying you believe you work well together, and the respect is given on both sides, but you are confused about where you misunderstood something. I like the word “confused” because it isn’t accusatory of the other person and it acknowledges you might have missed something.
Let him know you had spoken to Alex and now you believe there could be an uncomfortable relationship between Alex and Cheryl. Perhaps you could use this chance to brainstorm with Jim about how you both can handle it.
Going forward, put agreements in place around actions after a decision has been made, and how you will implement it together, so this doesn’t happen in the future.
I know you have written about emotional intelligence (EQ) and I’m a proponent of its use. What does one do when you work for a boss who simply has none? Like nothing – no self-awareness, no self-regulation. It impacts us in the day-to-day.
I teach a graduate class at Suffolk University in Boston called “Leading Teams.” One of the main areas of focus is EQ. A couple of weeks ago, a few of the students brought up how frustrating it was to learn the material I was teaching them and to see the value. None of them had encountered a manager who lacked attributes or characteristics of what I was teaching! My past life includes a boss who used to stand on the table to make his point when he was yelling, one that enjoyed pushing people so hard they cried (yes, male colleagues too) and one that would throw things at us in his office when he was upset with how production was going.
I understand and empathize on a personal level.
Yesterday I was running a manager meeting and we were talking about dealing with an employee who was performing well but causing angst among team members because of style. It was very hard for the leaders on the webinar to understand that part of what they had to look at was their own emotions, reactions and style before they approached this colleague. In a technical business like finance and investing, it is hard for many leaders to understand the emotional component is very important.
You can’t do much to help your manager see the light on his behavior and how it is not illustrative of high EQ. You can only work on yourself to understand it isn’t about you. Try and listen past the emotions he might show or the non-emotional stance he takes depending on the style. Try and get into his shoes.
I had the opportunity to run some focus groups and many of the colleagues wanted their senior leaders to “step into my shoes” to see how hard the job was day-to-day but when we went through the feedback, the senior leaders were very respectful of the findings but they also laughed and said they wouldn’t mind if their constituents could see how hard it is to be in their shoes dealing with the issues they confront every day.
It could also be that your manager is under extreme pressure and isn’t very good at handling pressure. See if there are ways you could provide support or understand what he is dealing with and partner with him more effectively. And I know you might ask, why is it your responsibility to do this when he is the boss? To make your life easier, it’s a reasonable approach.
Beverly Flaxington co-founded The Collaborative, a consulting firm devoted to business building for the financial services industry in 1995. The firm also founded and manages the Advisors Sales Academy. She is currently an adjunct professor at Suffolk University teaching undergraduate and graduate students Entrepreneurship and Leading Teams. Beverly is a Certified Professional Behavioral Analyst (CPBA) and Certified Professional Values Analyst (CPVA).
She has spent over 25 years in the investment industry and has been featured in Selling Power Magazine and quoted in hundreds of media outlets, including The Wall Street Journal, MSNBC.com, Investment News and Solutions Magazine for the FPA. She speaks frequently at investment industry conferences and is a speaker for the CFA Institute.