Over the years, I have been hesitant to write about actual client experiences. Because we play a vital role in the transformation of people, our work seemed too personal and the situations too real and the content too raw to put on public display. We are trusted by the people we work with and I never wanted to exploit them.
However, I have recently changed my mind about sharing what we have learned. My husband and business partner, Tom, had a childhood friend that often used the expression, “true to life” to describe those things that were simultaneously unbelievable and painfully real. I’ve never forgotten the power of those 3 words.
So, the new “True to Life” blog marks the beginning of my attempt to document our journey into hundreds of organizations, including our very own. We have always strived to “practice what we preach” and have made our fair share of mistakes along the way. I will hold nothing back and I will share the “true to life” stories that will have you laughing, crying, empathizing, questioning, rejoicing and hopefully learning, leading and sharing with others who are in the same boat. Each story that I will share in this collection will be one that transformed me personally. I will not disclose the company name, the location or the individual names of the people these stories are about. I encourage you to add to our stories with your personal experiences.
“Thou Shalt Tell Me Everything You Told Them”
The following story is about a company that has a presence in most, if not all, fifty states. We had been working with a General Manager and the team she inherited for more than two years. The word spread about the positive changes that were happening in the company culture, particularly with the highly dysfunctional management team.
Soon, we were asked if we could help a neighboring region that was having some “morale issues.” In our first calls, we listened to the GM tell us all about his credentials, how close he was with his team, how respected he was by the community, how he had memorized every leadership book known to mankind. We learned that he really didn’t love the idea of having outside consultants help his organization (“you just can’t trust consultants”) and that it was a directive from the Regional Vice President. The problems from his perspective were that the only person he could trust in the organization was his assistant (“she’s the only one who will tell me what is really going on”), he had an unfair proportion of weak managers (“it must be the region’s demographics, if he’d known how they were, he would never have transferred”) and to top it all off, he had a few “rotten apples” that were spoiling the whole bunch.
We learned that there had been a tremendous amount of turnover in the GM position (“this group could run anyone off”) and that no one could remember the last time that the management or staff were asked to share their thoughts (“that would be a waste of time and money”).
We decided that before we could propose a full plan of action, a confidential all employee assessment was in order. By talking one on one with each of the employees, we could begin to learn what was influencing this toxic culture and ask what might turn it around. The Regional Manager (Mr. GM’s boss) agreed that because the situation was so volatile and had become a resource strain on the corporation, each employee should be given the opportunity to voice their opinions.
Within a few weeks, three of our consultants were on the road and we were scheduled to spend three days interviewing the over 200 person workforce. We would ask the same set of questions to each individual and tally our responses and present a full report with recommendations within four business days.
We arrived on location and went to our respective “private” rooms where we would begin the interview process. Based on the tight schedule, interviews would last 30 minutes and we had no breaks planned between 8:30 and noon. The trusted assistant would manage logistics and ensure that the interviews ran smoothly.
Within the first three interviews, I was aware that we had a serious problem. The answers to all of the questions seemed to be a carbon copy of the previous interview. The answers didn’t seem to be heartfelt and each of the employees seemed extremely uncomfortable, as if they were being interrogated.
Now, you might think that this is normal. Wouldn’t we all be a little uncomfortable in this situation? Well, maybe. However, we are damn good at building trust and helping people feel safe enough to open up. And, our interview questions are not designed to only point out the negative, we’re looking for strengths and bright spots that we can help teams build upon and even this was difficult for this group. I ran through the checklist in my mind … Were there adequate communications ahead of time explaining the process?, Was this a good environment? Was my posture or tone of voice threatening? Were the questions we were asking that different from previous assessment interviews?
So, my fourth interview was with a man I’ll call James. James had been working for the company for over 10 years, he was in middle management. I had spoken with one of the guys that he supervised earlier and learned that people here really respected James as a leader. And, so, after getting some of the same responses I’d heard time and time again, I just stopped mid-sentence, looked James right in the eye and said, “What’s going on?” “What do you mean,” he replied. I shared that I had conducted thousands of these interviews and this experience was different than ever before. James shared that it wasn’t me (or my fellow consultants), everyone thought we were nice enough … it was the process. I probed and learned that the process had been hijacked. As soon as each person left our interview rooms, they were then asked by the trusted assistant or the know-it-all GM to tell them exactly what they had shared with us. Well, we all know that if this happened to us, we’d warn the next person in line to be interviewed and that’s just what they had done. They had created a counter process that protected the employees from the wrath of the GM.
As soon as that interview was over, I requested a quick break to talk with my team. Their stories were the same and they, too, had uncovered exactly what was going on.
We informed the assistant that we would be doing no more interviews that day and that we needed to meet with the GM immediately. We asked the GM about the situation and he admitted that he felt the need to control the situation so that there would be no exaggerations or lies that would be spread about him (and his assistant) and that he preferred not to be surprised by the report.
In that instant, we knew we had quite the situation on our hands. This was not the first time that this type of behavior had occurred in this culture. This incident was the tip of the iceberg. This was real … real time, real people, real lives, real careers. We knew that the jungle drums had most likely spread the message to the entire employee base and that the rumor mill had started (“if you say anything negative, you’ll be fired”, “they’ve called off the interviews”, “the GM has resigned”). And, we knew that even without the benefit of the assessments, many of the organization’s challenges were created or at a minimum perpetuated by the GM (in this case our client). We did not want to leave because we believed that no one there seemed to know what to do.
What followed was a series of negotiated events that included an “emergency” all staff meeting the next day in which the GM admitted that his need for control got the best of him and that he had derailed the entire process, the Regional VP and the GM expressed that this turn of events made the employee assessment process even more critical because it would be the beginning of a much needed turn-a-round that had to be “for and by the employees” and an announcement that there would be another all staff meeting in one week at which Catch Your Limit would share the findings and recommendations from the assessment interviews.
Of course, there’s a lot more to this story. The next few months were intense, powerful and extremely vulnerable. We spent a lot of time with the regional management, the GM, the management team and all departments within the organization creating environments that were open and teaching tools that would allow this group to recover. And, recover they did. The GM was on probation but ultimately earned the respect of most of the employees (yes, it took time) through his vulnerability and willingness to admit his mistakes and ask for forgiveness. The management team learned that they were stronger than they ever imagined and began the hard work of creating a positive culture. I think once things were stabilized, the GM ultimately decided (on his own) that a fresh start would be good for all and one of the bright stars on the management team was promoted.
It’s been years since we worked with that group and I’d love to know how they are doing today. I’d love to video them talking about this incident to capture their emotions. We were told many times that we had changed their lives and that they felt listened to and no longer afraid of losing their jobs every day. And, I’d love to tell them how they’ve changed me. Had we known that the GM would sabotage the assessment process, we would never have put that team in that position. From this experience, we’ve learned to better analyze the clients that we work with and make sure that they’re good candidates before we ever begin. This situation and others like it have taught us that no matter how much we prepare, to some extent we are still “parachuting in” and must be nimble. And, it’s taught me about control and how it can take down an organization and its people.
><(("> Melissa Laughon
Melissa is a ><(("> Team Member at Catch Your Limit, a management consulting firm with offices in Tallahassee, Florida and Richmond, Virginia. To learn more, visit www.catchyourlimit.com.