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