TLC 23 | Tough Conversations


Difficult conversations are uncomfortable to get through, but it is a must if you are to create a good working environment that produces productive employees who will stay with you for the long haul. Helping you conduct these difficult conversations, Jeffrey Edwards interviews Anne Graham, the founder of Syncworks Consulting Inc., to the show. Here, Anne looks into the dynamics of having conversations and reveals why these types of conversations are important. She dives deep into the people side of the business and what leaders and managers can do to take care of them above anything else. At the end of the day, people do the things you want them to do when they’re treated well. Learn how to become the best manager and leader as Anne talks about respect, trust, communications, and sharing feedback.

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

Our topic is looking at the dynamics of having conversations. It’s interesting reading through reports from Deloitte, Gartner and Gallup over the years. One of the consistent themes that comes through for managers and for leaders is the importance of having that “difficult conversation.” Our guest on the show is Anne Graham. She is the Founder of Syncworks Consulting. They partnered with leaders who create exceptional organizations, synchronize purpose, people and processes. She is a former executive. She’s worked at the C-Suite in a number of companies from small startups to multinationals.

Over her career, she has worked with boards, executive leadership teams advising them on issues in organizational growth, strategic direction change, transformation, succession planning and leadership. Her clients and employers have ranged from small startups to multinational companies in the high-technology, pharmaceutical, financial, utility and healthcare sectors. She has received awards in her work in HR, a local level here in Ottawa, Canada and has been recognized by Worldwide Who’s Who as the Professional of the Year in HR and Organizational Development. She is a respected mentor among her many HR professionals locally and on a worldwide stage. It’s a pleasure to introduce to you and bring to the show, Anne Graham.

Jeffrey, thanks so much. That’s quite an introduction.

It’s interesting because you give so much detail. I know I can easily go on for a few more minutes just telling about all these that you’ve done. What’s surprising to me is that when I look at what you’ve accomplished in your career, the initial impression I have when I first met you was, “She’s an engaged, interesting person and helpful mentor that I’ve come to known over the time.” Had I known all the things that you’ve done when I’ve done my research, I probably leave with this frozen like, “She doesn’t want to talk to me.”

You’re far too modest and humble. Anytime we get a chance to chat about HR, people or organizations, it’s a pleasure.

The people's side is the end game. People do things that you want them to do when they're treated well. Click To Tweet

What was it that brought you into this field of HR? You’ve worked with a whole range of companies in terms of size, depth and their geography. When you look back on your career, what was the inspiration that led you to this journey that you’re on?

It’s a little bit different when I started my career than it would be now, for example. Initially, I want to be a teacher. That’s what I did do or what I got educated for. I graduated at a time where there were no teaching jobs. You’d have to spend 3 or 4 years applying before you get your own classroom. In the meantime, I had been working at International Playtex in the HR organization. I left to go and get my B.Ed. While I was waiting for that permanent role, they called me to go 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 previously. I’ll go back.”

The short story is, as things turned out, the person that I was replacing on that leave didn’t come back. I ended up rolling into what was an HR role and never looked back. I think what attracted me to it and what kept me so engaged, I’ve loved all of my roles but it is about the people side of the business. I look at the challenge because it is a challenge to manage the people side in an organization. The challenge is working with leaders and managers who are focused on results. They’re focused on financials because that’s the essence of a business. The fun part for me was you can’t get there unless you’ve got your people side taken care of. It can be complicated but I always see it as simple. You treat people well, they treat you well back and things then work. As opposed to the financials and the results being the end game, I can see the people side as the end game and the other stuff happens because people do things when they’re treated well that you want them to do.

How often we can get the emphasis on the results and on the financials. We’re talking about performance. We talk about the results but as you mentioned, there are no people’s results without the people. Why is it that you see that people side as an issue that a number of managers struggle with?

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 from my parents and so on. Farmers make great neighbors because they have to support each other. Right from the get-go, there’s a reason for being kind to others. There’s a reason for sharing what you’ve got. There’s a reason for respecting and trusting the people that are 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. I think from a values perspective, I saw that early on in my career. I’ve also got a soft spot for folks that are trying to do their best and yet get thrown into organizations or into situations where it’s unfair.

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


I’ve got some hot buttons in terms of humiliation, lack of respect and people treat you badly. It’s one of the things that always bothered me when you see good people come into an organization and be treated badly. Sometimes that happens because there’s a basic conflict in values and ideas about how people should be treated. I know it’s years ago that we came up with a Theory X and Theory Y philosophies about how we treat people. Also, I think there are many situations that happens because managers and leaders are trying to do their best and haven’t been equipped with some of the simple guidelines, tips and suggestions on how to talk to people, how to listen to people, how to give them some space and put the person in the whole equation as opposed to the end game. I don’t think we’ve done a great job in prepping managers and leaders for how to do some of the simple things. That’s respect, trust, communications and sharing feedback.

In the past years, I’ve had the opportunity to work with newly-hired managers and internal people who’ve been promoted to that position. One of the things that came with that in discussions and some of the instruction was people not fully understanding what was expected of them. It was a title and a position but there were still a lot of questions that they had regarding how to do the job. They were wondering, “Where do I find those answers?” What’s been your experience viewing that over your career?

My experience is that for many years and still continues is we take great technical and functional leaders or practitioners in whatever function it is, it could be sales, marketing, technical and then we make them managers. We go on to make them directors. We make them vice presidents. Their technical skills or their functional expertise are what they’re riding on but very seldom do we sit down with them and either gave them a personal coach. We set the organizational processes around them to bolster them, to make sure that they have some guidance as opposed to trying to figure things out on their own. Some people are great communicators naturally. Those folks can do that without that type of support. Often, I’ve seen leadership programs or management development programs that it’s a one size fits all and it gets rolled out in an organization.

If they’ve got the budget for it and if part way through the year, they’ve kept that budget, quite often what happens is it’s a great idea when we’re doing the planning process. When it comes down to either choosing a program or rolling it out, the sustained commitment isn’t always there for the dollars and so on. A one size fits all 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 firstly appointed into a new manager’s role or when a director becomes a director or similarly with vice presidents and CEOs, how many times do people get to be CEOs? What training do they take after that?

It seems to me that the higher up in an organization that a person goes with those titles, the less they think they have to do personal development or professional development. If you don’t get the basics of giving and receiving feedback, if you don’t get the basics of setting expectations and giving progress conversations or having progress conversations with. If you don’t get that early in your career, it doesn’t mean you can’t get it later but it helps to build a solid foundation of some basic skills of management on the people side. It’s not just the people side. It works for the financials and all the other functional areas of expertise as well.

The more senior in responsibility you get in an organization, the less your technical and functional expertise is significant. Click To Tweet

If you get good at knowing what needs to be done, giving people support to do it, letting them know when it’s working, when it’s not and giving them some reason to feel that they matter and that they’re valued, to me it seems quite simple. That’s my experience. I think we’ve gone a lot of years without even in a selection process for what does a good manager, director or vice president. I include CEOs in that. They’re all hard jobs but each time you go up that next level, it’s not doing more of the same of what you were doing before. There’s a shift there. What a manager was doing is not the same as what a director will do.

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. That’s one of the things that I’ve enjoyed about my career is trying to help people in those situations where they’re trying to do all of the bases of business. Unfortunately, it seems like it’s an add-on the people’s side of the business. It should be integrated but it sometimes feels like, “I got to learn how to talk to people. I got to learn how to set goals and give feedback.”

You’ve had the experience over your career as well. You’ve been at all those levels including CEO. It’s wonderful to get that perspective from you because I don’t think people have that rounded experience of having got that HR experience, from the internal support, people management side and also the business strategic planning and leadership side to it as well. I always wonder why that seems to be missing. Why isn’t that rich? Think of the business programs out there. They talk about the operational management side, the strategic management side, the change management side but the people side seems to be the elective.

It’s like, “By the way, we’re going to do a three-hour workshop on this. We’re going to give you an hour. We’re going to have a launch and learn on this to talk about how to have the conversations.” That’s the extent to which most people get their training and then they move on. Every time you do a survey, what’s a type of employee engagement to talk about? How do you retain talent? How do we attract out? It always seems to come back to the same thing. People want to feel that they belong. They want to be heard. They want feedback. Why is it that there’s nothing new, yet it seems to be a rinse-repeat pattern? When do you start to listen at the higher echelons to put this in product?

It’s a great observation, Jeffrey. I agree with it. There was a book written a few years ago called Leadership BS. I thought that’s interesting. What it was saying is that we’ve spent 40 or 50 years in management development, leadership development trying to get out of the industrialized style of management, getting the employee involvement and teaching them. It has been a progression of management and leadership theories. Billions of dollars are spent on leadership development, basic supervision management, leadership and 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.


We have great role models in leadership but 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 leader leaders that have progressed through those levels in the organizations. The higher up may not be the term but the more senior in responsibility you get in an organization, the less your technical and functional expertise is significant. It’s still great to have because that’s building the levels of mastery in lots of different areas but the more significant dealing with people becomes. When you look at leaders that get placed in roles, I’m not even sure we’ve defined what we need at each of those levels.

If you haven’t defined what you need, you may not be getting what you’re looking for. You may not know 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 some awesome leadership teams because that’s a whole other area that I think is critical to the people side of the business. Ideally, you get a great leader and a CEO. You get a great leadership team that’s cohesive and respect each other. They’re able to be clear on setting goals. They’re able to be clear, supportive and giving 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, things work. I don’t want to oversimplify but I do believe when you put some of these things in place, I love the people purpose and process triangulation. If you’re clear on your strategy, you’re clear on the 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. We get the right people in the right seats, you get them respecting each other and working with trust and respect but no political or separate individual agendas. You get the processes in place like clarity on goals, a clear process on reporting back, getting your metrics there, being open and honest about the metrics, glossing over things that shouldn’t be glossed over, regular reporting and spending some time on the dynamics of working together.

I love it when a leadership team is interested in doing that. I worked in an organization that we had clearly set four times a year to go offsite. Everything is offsite. We go offsite to talk about the dynamics of how we were working together, how each of us is contributing to the team and the organization, the leadership thing level and how each of us can do better. We can always do better. We can always improve what we do but being open to hearing those things, even more significantly being open to sharing them. Back to what you said about how it’s difficult, people don’t like to give bad news. They don’t like to hurt other people’s feelings, so sometimes we hold back. We don’t say anything yet we’re not doing ourselves or that person or the team good service.

We’re not doing many favors. I’ve always likened it to walking around a day in 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. I would have appreciated it.” Sometimes people don’t want to hurt your feelings and say, “Excuse me, you’ve got some spinach on your teeth.” I see it the same way. We can’t get better if people don’t tell us. We all experience it but 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 and better people sometimes too.

We can't get better if people don't tell us. Click To Tweet

It’s so true when you speak about having that conversation. The idea of feedback is distorted. It has been distorted over the years. We think of organizations where they’re developing a program or a product. There’s always going to be this underlying process improvement behind the scenes. You’re always looking for feedback to improve what you do and what you’re doing. When it comes to that same part, it would be, “How can I help this person become even better at what they do? Help them improve or expand their skillset.” If we look at it from that perspective, how different that would shift the context of the conversation to more of a facilitated change, support, coaching conversation versus feeling like, “I have to criticize somebody.” I don’t think that’s the intent behind the conversation on both sides.

Clearly, it’s not the intent but quite often, that’s the way it feels. When someone says, “Can I give you some feedback,” and you tell them no. As opposed to saying, “Can I give you a gift,” which again, we would still react the same way. I think the more comfortable we can get in organizations about sharing that feedback, a colleague of mine used to always say, “Organizations are feedback storm,” because we don’t share. People want to know even if it’s not good or what we would consider negative or constructive, they still want to know.

Everybody wants to know how they’re doing. You liken it to a toddler who’s learning to walk. If you let themselves, they’ll figure it out. If they don’t, we’ll replace them. I think with people sometimes, managers are under tons of pressure to deliver and perform. Sometimes they look at it. Maybe we’re not as critical as we should be at the buy stage when we’re recruiting. We think, “The paper looks good, quick interview, bring them in. If it doesn’t work, we got probation. If it doesn’t work and we don’t get to it during probation, we’ll let them go and we’ll find somebody else.”

You get that cycle happening because if you haven’t fixed the original problem, we’re going to continue to cycle through on this. It’s unfair for people to come in and have 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 the announcement goes out. We’re all thrilled because Jeffrey’s joined us and he’s a rock star and then months later, it falls apart. There are a lot of things that happen along that path. That’s an unfortunate outcome. 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.

We’ve come across a report by McKinsey. They were speaking about the Millennial generational workforce. I hate using that generic term Millennials like everyone is the same, which we know it’s not. Professionals are coming into the workforce and there’s an expectation for feedback. They are constantly looking for feedback. They get frustrated when they’re not getting that feedback, which lends to some of the trends in terms of retention and attrition. They jump from job to job, which is a misnomer. I think it speaks to what you’re mentioning here and it’s that people are wanting to hear how they’re doing and yet we’re not providing the opportunity to them.

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 not that they’re needy. It’s just good common sense. 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 said, “Have you told them that?” The classic answer is they should know. I’m thinking, “Going back to the old Deming, how can they know if you haven’t told them?” I’ve heard that so many times and yet 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. They want people to like them. They want to have a nice, easy working relationship with their staff or vice versa.

Quite often, there’s that psychological barrier. “If I tell Jeffrey I don’t like this about it, even if I word it correctly, he’s not going to like me anymore. He’s not going to be happy. He’s not going to come in tomorrow or he might quit.” Those things have been proven over and over again. I’m not even talking about research but life experience that people appreciate being told that. It may not be at the moment but in hindsight, they 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. Those hard conversations, they’re not all hard. It’s amazing. I’ve found lots of examples. People I’ve worked with find it difficult to have pleasant conversations. 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. If they have a tough time with pleasant conversations, you can imagine or maybe they don’t have tough times. I’m not sure. Conversations like that one way or the other, 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 see what they’re doing and coach them. I know coach gets overused but that’s what it is. 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. People feel like they matter and they grow out of that too. 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, get the results you need and want to stay with you over time coming to the fact from building the relationships and having that open communication?

I think it’s retention. 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. It’s paying his groceries and things like that but sometimes it’s because they like the environment. They like who they work with. They like the work that they’re doing. I think we’re set now that we know that appreciation and recognition is a big factor in retention.

Appreciation and recognition are a big factor in retention. Click To Tweet

A final question for you is from a mentor’s perspective, how do you help the people that come to you and say, “I don’t know what I’m doing? Can you give me a hand?” Describe some of the experiences that you’ve had as a mentor that you’ve seen had been beneficial to those who’ve benefited from your experience and expertise?

A lot of it starts with the individual and where they are. What it is they want to do. What it is they feel comfortable doing. What they feel they want to be uncomfortable learning. I think starting with where they are and where they want to go is a great place. A lot of what I can bring as a mentor is mainly around experience depending on where the person is in the stage of their career. If they’re senior and they’re trying to deal with certain things, there are a lot of things in the organizational life cycle that will change. When you’re a startup, you have to concentrate on these things and you have these issues. When you get more mature and up to the prime levels of a fully humming organization, there are different challenges along the way.

I think that’s helpful. I’ve learned lots of things about process, people and things along that life cycle of an organization. I also think that in some cases, in leaders and managers sometimes there are assumptions that we have to do things a certain way or the folks above us are role models and we need to follow that role model. Sometimes that’s helpful but sometimes it’s not. I think helping people talk through what they’re thinking of, what they’re worried about, what they’re planning to do and helping them see what barriers might be there but also what are some enablers might be to get them there. 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.” Did that answer your question or not, Jeffrey?

I think it does. It’s a great summary. It sounds like what you do is that you sit down, you have a really healthy and productive conversation with them.

Every individual is different. There are some basics in every organization but everybody contributes in their own way. Everybody wins. 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.”

I appreciate you coming out here. Your thoughts, experience and wisdom came through. I know that I’ve learned so much in the time we’ve spent together. I continue to learn and enjoy our conversations. I know that those who are reading will have an opportunity to learn from that as well. I want to thank you for sharing your time here in the show. I look forward to seeing you down the road and all the best to you.

Thanks, Jeffrey. It’s always a pleasure.

Thanks again to Anne. Thank you for joining us here on the show. I’ll be with you next time with more news, resources and people to help you on your leader’s journey. Be good and lead well.

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About Anne Graham

TLC 23 | Tough ConversationsHaving established a reputation as a trusted advisor/confidante, Anne has a 25-year career history focused on developing and actioning people solutions for organizational and leadership success. Anne has strategic & hands-on experience in all major areas of Human Resources and Organizational Development.

Currently President of her own consulting firm, Syncworks, her most recent corporate role was Vice President of Human Resources at Pythian, a global technology firm headquartered in Ottawa.

Prior to getting into consulting, she held Executive and senior HR/OD roles in pharmaceutical, high tech and manufacturing organizations which included Pfizer, MD Management, Dy 4 Systems (now Curtiss Wright), Glaxo Wellcome (now GSK), Telesat Canada, LOF Glass (now Pilkington) and International Playtex. In addition to the diversity of industries, she has held roles in different organizational settings ranging from start-up and hyper-growth to mature, downsizing and re-organizing.

A believer that great leadership creates great workplaces, Anne has worked extensively with leaders and managers, within organizations as Vice President of HR and OD and as an external consultant.

In addition to her HR and OD consultancy, Anne is the Chair of the Board for The Royal Ottawa Health Care Group.


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