TLC 23 | Tough Conversations

Difficult conversations are uncomfortable to get through, but they’re vital to a healthy working environment. To help you get through those tough conversations — and find out why exactly they help with employee retention — I speak with  Anne Graham, the founder of Syncworks Consulting Inc.

About Anne Graham

TLC 23 | Tough ConversationsAnne has a 25-year career history focused on developing and actioning people solutions for organizational and leadership success. Currently the president and founder of Syncworks, Anne was formerly the VP of HR at Pythian, a global technology firm headquartered in Ottawa.

Anne has worked extensively with leaders and managers both within organizations, and as an external consultant. In addition to her HR and Organizational Development consultancy, Anne is the Chair of the Board for The Royal Ottawa Health Care Group.

Check out this episode if you want to learn:

  • How real, actionable feedback leads to better retention
  • Why leaders need to focus on the people side of their business for success
  • What can happen when a team feels truly valued

🎧 Listen to the podcast here:

Taking Care Of The People Side Of Business: Having Tough Conversations With Anne Graham

What brought you into the field of HR? 

Initially, I wanted to be a teacher, (but) I graduated at a time where there were no teaching jobs. You’d have to spend three or four years applying before you (got) your own classroom. In the meantime, I had been working at International Playtex in the HR (department). I left to go and get my B.Ed (Bachelor of Education). They called me to come back, because there was a mat leave in Human Resources. I was like, ‘I wanted this teaching thing, but I had a good couple of years — I’ll go back.’

As things turned out, the person that I was replacing didn’t come back. I ended up rolling into a HR role, and never looked back. I think what attracted me to it is the people side of the business. It is a challenge to manage the people side (of) an organization (when) working with leaders (who are) focused on results.

They’re focused on financials because that’s the essence of a business. (However), you can’t get there unless you’ve got your people side taken care of. I always see it as simple: you treat people well, they treat you well back, and things then work.

As opposed to the (business) results being the end game, I see the people side as the end game. The other stuff happens because people do (what you want them to do) when they’re treated well.

'The people's side is the end game. People do things that you want them to do when they're treated well.' Share on X
There is no business success without people, so why is the people side of business such a struggle for managers?

I think there are a lot of factors that come into play there. For me personally, it was about values and what’s important. I grew up with a farming background (and) farmers make great neighbours because they have to support each other. Right from the get-go, there’s a reason for being kind to others, for respecting and trusting the people around you.

As I grew up and I got into the world of organizations, one of the things that always bothered me — and still does — is personal agendas, internal competition, politicking and things like that.

TLC 23 | Tough Conversations

Tough Conversations: We don’t do a great job in preparing managers and leaders for how to do some of the simple things like respect, trust, communications, and sharing feedback

It’s always bothered me when you see good people come into an organization and be treated badly. Sometimes there’s a basic conflict in values about how people should be treated. (Sometimes) managers and leaders are trying to do their best, (but) haven’t been equipped with simple guidelines on how to talk to and listen to people.

I don’t think we’ve done a great job in prepping managers and leaders for how to do some of the simple things: (having) respect, (building) trust and sharing feedback.

Some of the newly-hired managers I’ve worked with didn’t know what was expected of them. 

We take great functional leaders — it could be sales, marketing, technical — and then we make them managers, directors, vice presidents. Their functional expertise is what they’re riding on, but very seldom do we sit down with them, or give them a personal coach.

Some people are great communicators naturally. Those folks can (transition into management roles) without that type of support. Often, I’ve seen leadership or management development programs where it’s a one-size-fits-all. It will capture some of the basics, but it doesn’t capture all of it.

I think a much more targeted program or targeted support at transition times for leaders and managers would be helpful. When a manager is first appointed into (that) role, or when a director becomes a director — what training do they (get)?

It seems to me that the higher up in an organization that a person goes, the less they think they have to do personal or professional development. It helps to build a solid foundation of some basic skills of management on the people side.

'The more senior in responsibility you get in an organization, the less your technical and functional expertise is significant.' Share on X

When a manager’s first promoted to be a director, it’s not the same job. Similarly, when they become a vice president, that’s not the same job as a director. God knows a CEO is not the same job as any of those. It’s all of those things combined, with a whole bunch more.

One of the things that I’ve enjoyed about my career is trying to help people in those situations, when they’re trying to do all of the bases of business. Unfortunately, it seems like the people side of the business (is an add-on, when it) should be integrated.

You’ve worked in all of those roles, including CEO, and you brought your HR experience with you. I don’t think many other leaders have that same kind of well-rounded experience.

There was a book written a few years ago called ‘Leadership BS‘. What it was saying is that we’ve spent 40 or 50 years in management and leadership development, trying to get out of the industrialized style of management. Billions of dollars are spent on leadership development, basic supervision management, all the nuances of each of those types of things — but we haven’t been successful.

TLC 23 | Tough Conversations

Tough Conversations: Sometimes, the most difficult conversations we have are the ones we learn the most in and will serve us the best in becoming better professionals.

If anyone goes to do a search for great leaders, you’ll find a whole lot more technical or functional experts in leadership positions than leaders that who progressed through (different) levels in the organizations. The more senior you get in an organization, the less your technical and functional expertise is significant, but the more significant dealing with people becomes.

I’m not even sure we’ve defined what we need at each of those levels, (and) if you haven’t defined what you need, you may not be getting what you’re looking for.

There are lots of examples out there of things that work. I’ve been fortunate in my career to have worked with some awesome CEOs and leadership teams. Ideally, you get a great leader and a CEO. You get a great leadership team that’s cohesive and respects each other. They’re able to be clear, supportive and give feedback when the goals aren’t being met.

I’ve developed over the years what I’m calling a ‘leadership blueprint’ of certain simple things that, if they’re in place, (make) things work.

What is the leadership blueprint?

I love the people, purpose and process triangulation.

If you’re clear on your strategy and goals, and how each piece of the organization is going to contribute to those goals — that’s the purpose piece. You then look at the people side, which is the age-old story: get the right people in the right seats, working with trust and no individual agendas. (Finally), you get the processes in place, like clarity on goals, on reporting back, metrics.

I worked in an organization that had clearly set four times a year to go offsite, to talk about the dynamics of how we were working together. We can always improve what we do, but (it’s about) being open to hearing those things — (and) even more significantly, being open to sharing them.

People don’t like to give bad news (or) hurt other people’s feelings, so sometimes we hold back. We don’t say anything, yet we’re not doing ourselves, that person or the team (a) good service.

I’ve always likened it to walking around the office with spinach on your teeth. You get home at night and you say, ‘How long has that been there? Nobody cared enough about me to tell me that it was there.’ Sometimes people don’t want to hurt your feelings and say, ‘Excuse me, you’ve got some spinach on your teeth.’

We can’t get better if people don’t tell us. Sometimes the most difficult conversations we have are the ones that will serve us the best in becoming better professionals, and better people, too.

'We can't get better if people don't tell us.' Share on X
Seeing feedback as a way of helping someone else really shifts the way we think about difficult conversations. 

Even if it’s not good — or what we would consider ‘negative’ or ‘constructive’ — everybody wants to know how they’re doing.

Managers are under tons of pressure to deliver and perform. Maybe we’re not as critical as we should be at the stage when we’re recruiting. We think, ‘The paper looks good, quick interview, bring them in. If it doesn’t work, we got probation — we’ll let them go and find somebody else.’

If you haven’t fixed the original problem, you’re going to continue to cycle through (candidates). It’s unfair for people to come in and (face) the sink or swim philosophy. It’s so much better to own the success of whoever we bring into an organization, and make sure that they’re successful. That’s always our intent, but you often wonder what happens between the time somebody is hired and then months later, it falls apart. There are a lot of things that happen along that path.

I think anytime that we have to part ways, we’ve missed something along the way. In the world of business, in the world of high performance and high deliverable expectations, it’s a quick fix.

There’s a report by McKinsey saying professionals coming into the workforce have an expectation for feedback. They get frustrated when they don’t receive it, which can lead to retention issues.
TLC 23 | Tough Conversations

Tough Conversations: When given feedback, employees will feel better about themselves because of what they gained and feel better about you as a manager because you helped them out.

It’s good business sense to let people know how they’re doing. They can’t read your mind if you’re a manager and things aren’t going well.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in a chair listening to a manager telling me about what’s going on with an individual. I ask, ‘Have you told them that?’ The classic answer is ‘They should know.’

Going back to the old Deming (quote), ‘how can they know if you haven’t told them?’ In fairness to the person, if they knew, you wouldn’t have the issue. It is a difficult thing for managers to confront people. They want to be popular, and have a nice, easy working relationship with their staff or vice versa.

It might not (happen) in the moment, but in hindsight, (people) do appreciate knowing. It also makes them feel that they matter. There’s the age-old saying that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. If you’re not giving them feedback, they’re going to feel ignored, unsupported or cut adrift.

People I’ve worked with find it difficult to have pleasant conversations (too). How difficult is it to go talk to somebody and say, ‘Thanks so much, Jeffrey. I appreciate it’? I’ve worked with people that can’t get that out of their mouths, either.

People want to know that they matter, and that’s one way you can let them know. You care enough to take the time to observe what they’re doing well and thank them for it, but also take the time to coach them.

If you’re teaching somebody how to do something more effectively, or set them up with somebody else who can help them, it’s so much better. You get a double win. They feel better about themselves because of what they gained, and they feel better about you as a manager because you helped them out.

What’s the likelihood that they’re going to perform better, and want to stay with the organization over time? 

We sometimes don’t think enough about what it is that keeps people at organizations. Sometimes it’s basic things: the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (like) paying for groceries. Sometimes, it’s because they like the environment — they like who they work with, or the work that they’re doing. We know that appreciation and recognition is a big factor in retention.

'Appreciation and recognition are a big factor in retention.' Share on X
How do you help people who come to you for mentorship?

I think starting with where they are and where they want to go is a great place. I’ve learned lots of things about process and people along the life-cycle of an organization. In some cases, leaders and managers (have) assumptions that we have to do things a certain way, (that) we need to follow a role model. Sometimes that’s helpful, but sometimes it’s not.

I think a safe place to talk sums up a lot of it — what’s on their mind, and then adding a little bit of experience to say, ‘It’s not always this way. Here are some other scenarios that might work too.’

 It sounds like you have a really healthy and productive conversation with your mentees.

Every individual is different. There are some basics in every organization, but everybody contributes in their own way. If an organization gets a person that fits a role and vice versa, it’s a healthy, good and productive day. We’re not there yet, but I’ve always wanted to hear, ‘Thank goodness, it’s Monday’ instead of, ‘Thank goodness, it’s Friday.’

📌 Important Links:

Love the show? Subscribe, rate, review, and share!

Join The Leader’s Chair Community today on Facebook and Twitter.