Crucial Conversations QA

A Boss On a Spending Spree

Joseph Grenny is the author of the New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.

Joseph Grenny is the author of three bestselling books, Influencer, Crucial Conversations, and Crucial Confrontations.


CrucialConversationsQDear Crucial Skills,

I am the CFO of a small business. Our president spends money in a way that many of the employees see as wasteful—for example, a landscaping project at the back of the parking lot. Most of the projects relate to the importance he places on the image of the business such as landscaping, updates to the interior, etc. I think this is due in part to a level of affluence and prestige he is accustomed to.

How do I talk to my boss about an issue he feels is very important but that lowers the morale of many employees? Ideally, I would like to see a process implemented where the top management team approves expenditures in excess of a set amount, but I don’t think he would be willing to go this direction.

Following the Money

A  Dear Following,

Your question brought back memories—both good and bad. Good because I can relate to your issue. Bad because my advice might be colored by the specifics of my own situation. So with that warning, here goes my walk through memory lane with you!

I once consulted with the president of a very large organization who was accused of the same thing. After taking charge, he began a major face-lift of the company’s facilities at the same time the organization faced major revenue declines and likely layoffs. While people speculated about how many thousands of employees would lose their jobs, they watched the company lobby become a marketing masterpiece of high-tech interactive displays and pricey designer appointments. While they worried about paying their mortgages, they saw the simple greenery lining the approach to the facility torn out and replaced with full-grown, non-native, high-maintenance flora. The parking lot was spruced up, the guard booths redesigned, and on and on. Employees began bitterly describing the effort as a pure ego trip for the sophisticated boss.

While your crucial conversation may have much different issues at play, I’ll offer a few things I learned from this similar situation.

One person’s story can be another’s strategy. The first is a caution. The problem here could be less your boss’s ego than your judgment. It could be that, in his mind, these investments are a very smart decision for the company that he believes will provide a great return to shareholders. In my situation, this was exactly the case. High-end customers regularly visited the facility and the president concluded it was important to create an image that supported their high tech and sophisticated brand. A frumpy lobby and weedy grass conflicted with this image. In fact, the president argued the only way to save jobs was to increase revenues—which meant, in part, positioning the company as a leading-edge player. He felt that if they had not made these investments, they would have appeared to be on the decline.

Now, reasonable people can disagree on either this principle or on the amount spent on the principle. But if you tell yourself a story that the primary reason for your president’s expenditures is ego or detachment from the way real people live, you might feed conflict and resentment rather than understanding and unity in how you influence others who are critical of the president’s policy. I worry you are heading down this path when you attribute his fiscal bias to his personal affluence. Choosing to see it this way sets this up as a character issue when it doesn’t have to be.

Likewise, when you hold this crucial conversation, if the story in your head is that this is about ego, your resentment and sense of moral superiority may color your approach and undermine your effectiveness. It’s much better to come from a story that says, “I think there is merit in this strategy, but there is more merit in spending elsewhere.” This will tend to make the conversation about different assumptions rather than different values—a much easier conversation to hold.

Dialogue is not decision making. I applaud your desire to be a good CFO. I assume from your description of the size of the company that you report to the president, not to a board. If that is so, then your job is to be a strong financial partner to the president, so your question is a mark of your integrity to that role. Being a great CFO means challenging his judgments at times—which is precisely what you are preparing to do. However, be sure you prepare for the fact that you may need to change if he doesn’t. Ultimately, this decision is his and not yours. In fact, if you make a strong case for redirecting capital in other directions and fail to persuade him, there is a risk that your judgments about his motives for the spending policy could subtly mix with your disappointment at “losing” and cause you to feel even more judgmental about his legitimately different point of view. You risk making it an issue of “who is better and who is worse” rather than “what policy is best for the company.”

Before you begin the conversation, Start with Heart. Erase any hope of “winning” or “being right” from your gut. Go in for the sole purpose of providing honest counsel, then be a loyal subordinate if he disagrees. Drop your judgments and accept that you are reasonable people who disagree. Getting to dialogue does not mean you get to make the decision.

Motivate with natural consequences. It sounds like you have two reasons for speaking up. The first is that you disagree with the president’s judgments. The second is that you see it having a negative effect on morale. If the second is truly an issue, that is an entirely separate but equally crucial conversation. If the spending policies are alienating staff, the president should be aware of that. In fact, if you share this information in a safe way with him it may also persuade him to temper his policy. But do not “use” this information to get him to do that. This second conversation is not about whether the policy is right or not. Strategy is not a popularity contest with employees, it’s leaders’ judgment about what is best for the company. And at times (as in my case above), that means doing things people don’t like in order to produce the best long-term result. This second conversation is about leadership not spending. Your goal is to bring the moral issue to his attention and make recommendations for influencing people to help them understand and support the direction more willingly. Period. If the president uses this issue as a reason to question his decision, that’s his personal prerogative.

Call foolishness “foolishness.” Finally, if after reflecting on all these points you truly believe his policy is damaging and self-serving, then you need to have two conversations. The first is with him. You need to make the strongest case possible about demonstrating why this spending is measurably damaging the company.

The second conversation is with yourself—about whether you’re willing to be part of incompetence or malfeasance if this issue rises to that level. From your question, it doesn’t sound as though it does—but I’d be letting you down if I didn’t challenge you to call it what it is if this is the proper characterization.

In my honest consideration, one of VitalSmarts’ greatest assets is our CFO, Yan, who I believe is the best CFO we could possibly have. She has created a culture of financial accountability that has fueled our success for fifteen years. It sounds like you are working to play the same role in your company and I applaud your integrity.


Kerrying On

Kerrying On: A Christmas Gift

During this holiday season, we would like to share one of our favorite holiday Kerrying On articles and invite you to watch for opportunities to help those in need.

Over twenty years ago, I received the most amazing Christmas gift. Today I share it with you.

It was December of 1984 and my wife and children and I were eagerly shopping for a teenage boy we had never met. This particular shopping spree was part of a sub-for-Santa adventure we and four other families were undertaking. This was the third year in a row the gang of us had agreed to help a needy family (this year it was a mother, father, and five children) and we approached the task with our usual mix of joy and anxiety. Could we truly help someone? Would we be a blessing in their lives or would we disappoint them?

Two days later, we nervously gathered presents, food, and clothing, piled into our cars, and drove through a constant drizzle to a small house that sported the address given to us by the local relief agency. “It looks small,” said my oldest daughter as five cars chock-full of parents and children pulled up to the house.

Gingerly we carried the boxes to the front porch. (Later my oldest daughter revealed that you could see four noses pressed against the window as the family’s younger children looked on in excitement.) Not knowing exactly what to do, we eventually all gathered in the freezing rain and started to sing Christmas carols. At the end of the second carol, the father of the clan took pity on us, stepped out into the rain, and begged all of us to please come in. “In where?” I thought as I looked around at the crowd and figured if we all went inside, we’d explode the house.

Minutes later as we stood cheek to jowl, the father began to talk. He explained that he had undergone back surgery earlier that year and hadn’t been able to return to work quite yet. It hadn’t been an easy choice, but he had decided that if they were to have any presents for the kids, he’d have to call on one of the local agencies, which he did. He thanked us copiously for answering the call.

“Now, in turn for your presents, I offer you one of my own—in the form of a story,” he continued.

“Eight years ago when we had only two children and I was just getting started in my career, we were facing a rather meager Christmas. We bought my oldest son, who was eight at the time, and his sister who was four, two presents. One was a pair of socks, the other a toy. My son had asked for a basketball, and from the size and shape of his two packages under the tree, there would be no surprise for him that year.” The son, who was now a gawky teenager standing shyly in the hallway, nodded in agreement.

“One evening two days before Christmas I came home with an announcement.” The father continued. “A new family had moved in not far from our house, and since they didn’t have two pennies to rub together, they wouldn’t be having a Christmas. They had a boy and girl the same ages as our family and I was thinking that maybe we could share Christmas with them.

“‘We could each give them one of our two presents,’ my wife suggested as our two children looked on in suspicion.”

“Finally, after staring at his two presents under the tree for what seemed like ten minutes, my son walked over, picked up the package containing the basketball, and said, ‘I’ll share this one.’ Each of us then grabbed one of our two presents, put it in a box, and carried our gift down to our new neighbors who seemed very grateful.”

As he told the story I noticed that my own children were fixed on him, their eyes brimming with tears as they thought of how these people had sacrificed so dearly.

“Later that day,” the father continued to explain, “I received a phone call from my local church leader. It turned out that there were a few families in our little church group that didn’t have any money for Christmas that year. A group of generous people had put together several boxes of presents and food for the needy families. Since I was driving a rather large and beat-up station wagon that had a lot of hauling space, he asked if I would be so kind as to drive to the church on Christmas Eve, load up the wagon, and make the various deliveries. ‘Besides,’ my church leader explained, ‘your two young ones will get a kick out of playing Santa.’

“I immediately agreed to lend a hand. But I knew in so doing I was in trouble. I hung up the phone and explained to my family what I had committed to do, and then shared with them the challenge. We had spent all of our money on Christmas, and the station wagon was almost out of gas. We’d have to find a way to raise some cash to fill the gas tank to make the deliveries.”

“‘We could collect soda pop bottles,’ my daughter quickly suggested. That’s what she had seen her older brother do in order to raise a few pennies. This, of course, was at a time that if you retrieved a discarded pop bottle by the side of the road and took it to a local grocery store they’d give you two cents for it.

“So it was agreed. We bundled up against the wind and snow and all day long the day of Christmas Eve we hunted for bottles. Finally, just before we were due to make the deliveries, we cashed in the bottles, put a couple of gallons of gas into the old wagon, and drove over to the church.”

“As our church leader loaded box after box filled with beautifully wrapped presents into our dilapidated vehicle, my son and daughter looked on in wonder. They sniffed the air with a look of longing as he loaded in a carton containing freshly baked pies and a ham along with all the trimmings. They squished over to the edge of their seat as the boxes stacked one upon the other until our wagon was filled to bursting.”

“Our church leader handed me an envelope containing a list of the various names and addresses of the people we were to visit, and then thanked us profusely for helping with the deliveries. As he drove off I opened the envelope to see the extent of the task in front of us. The small piece of paper I found inside the envelope contained but one name and address. It was ours.”

As the humble man finished his story, those of us who had come to help his family were either openly crying or doing a poor job of holding back tears. I was completely humbled as I envisioned this sweet man and woman and their two children bracing against the wind and searching for bottles—doing their very best to help the needy.

What made the story all the more wonderful was that the gentleman telling it did his best to make the church leader and the other generous members of his congregation out to be the heroes—look how nice they had been to his family, he had explained, just as we were now being nice to them this year.

It had never occurred to the man we had come to help that as thoughtful as his church friends had been to him and his family, our motley sub-for-Santa gang looked on him and his children with a genuine sense of amazement. They were the ones who shared their Christmas. They were the ones who, as others drank cocoa by the fireplace or stirred fudge in the kitchen, trudged through frozen fields in a quest for two-cent treasures. They were the true heroes and didn’t even know it.

My family and I count this sweet experience as our favorite holiday gift. It’s a present that will live with us forever.

Kerrying On

Kerrying On: A Holiday Gift for the Children

Kerry Patterson

Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.


Kerrying On

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Thirty years ago, after landing my first consulting job, I could hardly wait to get started. For years, I had studied how to change the world and now it was my turn to roll up my sleeves and actually do something. The goal of this particular project was to take an adversarial, punitive, and authoritarian corporate culture and turn it into a productive, team-oriented place. At least, that’s what the plant manager requested.

“And I want it soon!” the agitated manager told me over the phone. “Or heads are going to roll.”

As I drove to the airport on my way to the anxious manager’s factory, I couldn’t help but notice a bumper sticker sported by several of my neighbors. The popular sticker stated rather immodestly—”Irvine: Another Day in Paradise.” Several hours later, as I exited the Wayne County Airport on my way to visit the client, I noticed Detroit’s version of the home-town promotional slogan on a sweatshirt: “Detroit: Where the Weak Are Killed . . . and Eaten.”

Later that day, as I interviewed hourly employees, I got my first glimpse into the rather un-paradise-like nature of the company I was supposed to help fashion into a paragon of cooperation. When I asked the question “If you ran this place, what changes would you make?” the employees immediately started ridiculing their leaders. At one point, they told of a supervisor throwing a heavy ashtray through a plate-glass window and then chopping up a breaker box with a fire ax—you know, to get his team’s attention. Later, during that same interview, a rather animated employee explained that the ashtray-hurling supervisor’s direct reports eventually grew tired of his shenanigans and one Friday afternoon chased him out to his car. When he climbed on top of it for safety, they lit the car on fire!

Then things turned from scary to complicated. As I interviewed a group of supervisors from whence this ashtray thrower came, they (much to my surprise) seemed reasonable and rational—nothing like the slavering maniacs their direct reports had just described. In fact, they appeared rather pleasant. The supervisors did share one thing in common with their direct reports. They had a bone to pick with their own bosses, the superintendents who, in their words, were authoritarian monsters. Of course, when I met the superintendents, they seemed quite professional, and—you guessed it—they pretty much loathed their bosses, the managers.

As it turns out, everyone at this rather frightening factory blamed everyone else for their problems and everyone—based upon the unprofessional actions of their bosses—felt justified in their own counterproductive behaviors. Why? Because everyone deserved whatever you gave them. And this wasn’t a problem unique to this particular factory, city, or region. As my career has unfolded, I’ve run into similarly violent and reactive places all around the country.

Not everyone lights cars on fire, of course, but the idea of dealing back what you’ve been dealt is still widely shared. It seems one of the values reflected in today’s video games, TV shows, and movies has left its mark. All encourage revenge. For instance, the longest running TV show of my generation, started with the “bad guy” riding into town, getting off his horse, spitting on a nun, and pistol-whipping a schoolmarm. Then, for a full 55 minutes, the good guys sought revenge on that pistol-toting bad guy, who, as we all knew, deserved whatever he got. And to this day, this same troublesome theme continues on the screen.

I recently mentioned our seemingly insatiable thirst for revenge to my next-door neighbor and he chuckled softly and stated, “I have the same problem with my own children. They’ll be in the middle of a squabble, I’ll ask one of them what’s going on, and my oldest son will invariably come back with, ‘It all started when he hit me back!'”

“It all started when he hit me back!” What a clever encapsulation of a contemporary malaise. As long as others mistreat us, we can mistreat them right back. Because, well, they deserve it.

I’ve thought about this issue for quite some time, and as many of you know, it permeates our writing. For example, the principle of working on ourselves first from Crucial Conversations suggests we need to think less about exacting revenge on others and more about our own style under stress. Equally true, maybe we shouldn’t mirror the very behavior we loathe. Transforming others into villains and viewing ourselves as heroes also fuels the fires of getting even. In short, in both our training and books we teach that responding to violence with violence is a bad thing, and I believe we’ve made some progress. In fact, in that first factory where a supervisor wielded an ax, leaders learned to effectively handle high-stakes, emotional conversations, and over the next two years violence decreased significantly.

Today, I hope to take this message to a new audience: children. Actually, I’m hoping you’ll pass the message along for me. I know, asking a favor deviates quite a bit from your standard business newsletter, and writing something for children—why that’s virtually unheard of. But it’s my hope that if we can set kids on the right path while they’re still young, they’ll be better prepared for the unrelenting stream of invitations to violence that will most assuredly assault them as they turn on their TVs, play their video games, go to movies, and eventually show up at work.

So, with the children in mind, and in the spirit of the holiday season, I’ve written a rather Seussian children’s tale that I hope you’ll share with the young ones in your world. It’s not about mistletoe, snowmen, and the like, but apropos to the season of love and tranquility, it shares a message of peace—the kind of peace one creates through a healthy and loving response to how others treat us, even when they’re being naughty, not nice. The short (three minute) story is intended to be accompanied by pictures, but I haven’t arranged for the artwork yet. So for this holiday, I plan on reading it aloud to my grandchildren, sans illustrations. You might consider doing the same.

Download Story Here