Crucial Conversations QA

Seeking a Promotion

Dear Crucial Skills,

I’m a cofounder of a company that recently brought in a new CEO who I don’t know well. I want to talk to the CEO about taking an executive role in the company and obtaining his mentorship. The problem is I feel very strongly about this position and my contribution, and tend to get emotional about it. I know I’ve made a very significant contribution to the company’s growth, but I’m also fundamentally insecure about my skills. I also don’t have the resume that investors are looking for. The new CEO is a very level-headed person who doesn’t get emotional about anything, and I don’t want to lose credibility with him as I negotiate my role in this growing company. Can you give me some pointers for preparing for this conversation?

Looking for a Promotion

Dear Looking,

Of course you get emotional about your role in the company you cofounded! This company is your brainchild; you’ve invested your blood, sweat, and tears. Any conversation about your role going forward is high stakes indeed. And strong emotions are often the biggest barrier to effectively influencing others. As you take stock of the company’s needs, and of the skills you need in order to fulfill an executive role, you are wise to seek the new CEO’s mentorship. So how do you have the crucial conversation with the CEO about taking on an executive role?

Start with heart. As you contemplate having this conversation, ask yourself, “What do I really want? For myself? For the new CEO? For the company?” Of course you want the company to be successful. You also want to support the CEO and help him succeed. In addition, you want to occupy an executive position and be effective in that role. Keep in mind that you are not a beggar or a thief. You are not asking for a position you do not deserve, nor are you expecting a role that benefits you and hurts the company. You want to add value and make a meaningful contribution. These are good motives—helpful motives. As you focus on these thoughts, your brain will be in gear and your emotions will dissipate.

Create mutual purpose. An important beginning to this crucial conversation is to help the CEO understand your intentions—your motives. You might want to say something like, “I want to talk with you about my role in the company. I am absolutely committed to making the company succeed. I also want to do everything within my power to help you be successful in your new role as CEO.” Such a strong declaration will do a lot to make it safe for the CEO to discuss the topic with you openly.

Next, share your meaning. As with bringing up any sensitive topic, I would encourage you to share the facts. Help the CEO understand your history with the company and the many contributions you’ve made. There’s no need to feel embarrassed or shy. You are not bragging or “tooting your own horn.” You are giving the CEO important information he needs to make decisions about how to best utilize your abilities. Then tell your story by sharing with the CEO your honest evaluation of your strengths and weaknesses. Our tendency is to ‘spin’ our histories by embellishing our strengths and understating our weaknesses.

I once worked with a colleague who was always trying to ‘sell’ me. When advocating his point of view, he emphasized the reasons to do what he wanted, and left unmentioned the downside. I grew to discount his statements and distrust his motives. You do not want to do this. Identify where you see yourself as the most capable and where you need more development. This kind of honesty, openness, and insight will help your CEO appreciate the kind of person you are and trust your candor. Next, make your proposal. Explain the position you want to fill and its responsibilities. Ask that the CEO mentor you and help you strengthen the areas you’ve identified for improvement.

Finally, ask for the CEO’s input. You’ve put a lot of meaning in the pool; now is the time to get his. Ask questions and listen. How does he see the situation? How does he view the fit between you and the executive position?

This appeal will not necessarily guarantee that you end up with the position you desire. However, this approach will increase the likelihood your emotions will not get in the way, and there will be greater mutual understanding.

Good Luck,

Kerrying On

My Favorite Gift

One brisk December morning as my five-year-old son Taylor and I skittered across the local mall’s icy parking lot in search of gifts for his two older sisters, Taylor turned to me and asked, “What was your bestest and most favorite Christmas present ever?” I have contemplated the answer to that question over the years since. Despite the fact that as a child I had perched over the toy section of the Sears catalogue (much like a monk musing over a sacred manuscript), my favorite gift never made it into Mr. Sears’ marvelous book. In fact, it was never sold in any store. More curious still, it sat in a box, unopened for almost fifty years. To appreciate this magical gift, you have to know a little bit about how the human mind works.

Although nobody completely understands how anything as complicated as the brain actually functions, I like to think of it as thousands of tiny shelves that sit in long rows inside our head. On these shelves sit millions of even tinier boxes. And inside these boxes you find memories. Some of the boxes remain unopened and unattended for years and the thoughts left inside evaporate like dry ice on a hot summer day. Other memories remain active and vital because we pull a box off the shelf, open it, and relive the experience.

Of course, every time we crack open a memory box we change the contents ever so slightly. That’s because when we visit a memory, we add a little here and snip a little there. With each new peek into the box we make subtle alterations until one day, all that is left is the memory of a memory of a memory; little more than a faint and blurred copy. The original is gone forever.

But not always. Every once in a while the most amazing thing happens. A mysterious force knocks a box off one of our memory shelves—a box that has sat untouched for years suddenly bursts open. And when it does, you relive a precious moment—unchanged and straight from your childhood. That’s what happened to me one December morning a few years ago. I was preparing for my granddaughter who would soon be making a Christmas visit. As I fussed and fidgeted and tried to make the house safe for a curious child, I spotted a small shiny object on the floor, just under our living room couch. As I drew closer I could see that it was a dime.

“We can’t have that lying around!” I muttered to myself, as I dropped to my hands and knees.

At that very moment, a song that I had learned in the first grade started playing on the radio: “Christmas is coming; the goose is getting fat. . . .” The image of the shiny dime coupled with the haunting melody of a childhood song pushed an untouched package off my memory shelf.


As the lid from this tiny box popped open and the contents tumbled out, I was suddenly six years old. The dime I had been staring at under the couch magically transformed into a dime lying under my grandfather’s candy counter.

When I was a boy my grandpa owned a corner grocery store and every day on the way home from elementary school I’d stop by to see him. Grandpa was always as interested in the characters portrayed in my childhood primer as I was. “Spot ran away, and Sally and Puff are looking for him,” I’d explain. “Really?” he would ask with genuine interest. “Do you think they’ll find him?”

Grandpa always wore a lime green apron that looked clean and stiff and official. As the sole proprietor of our only neighborhood store, I thought he was about as important as any person alive—maybe as important as a brain surgeon, a judge, or even a fireman. I loved my Grandpa as much as I loved anyone or anything. Grandpa loved me in return. He was proud of everything I did. When I earned a gold star at school, he acted as if I had invented penicillin. Even when I didn’t do very well he’d smile warmly and tell me not to worry.

Sometimes Grandpa would use me as a prop. On rainy days (which was most of the time in Bellingham, Washington), I’d stop by the store and he would go through the same routine. Grandpa would be chatting with a grownup customer and as soon as I’d walk up next to him he’d mention how miserable the weather was. Then he’d look out at the drizzle and say, “You know, I wish the sun would come out. Not so much for myself but for my grandson.” Then he’d pat me on the head and explain, “I’ve seen the sun before, but my grandson never has!” Everyone would laugh.

On this day—that is, the day that fell down from my memory shelf—I was on my hands and knees doing what little boys do when they’re at their grandfather’s grocery store, next to the candy counter. I was looking for coins. Sometimes grownups would drop a penny, and if you were lucky, you’d end up with a tasty treat. Only this time, I spotted a shiny new dime. Ten whole cents!

I can still remember what I bought—one licorice whip, one red-hot jawbreaker, two sour cherries, one raspberry vine, and ten Whoppers—Whoppers were two for a penny. Grandpa smiled wide as I scampered out of his store. You would have thought that he was the one with the pocketful of candy.

Since I was still a child when this took place—and still believed in miracles—the next day I ran out the back door of school, raced down the hill, burst into Grandpa’s store, and dropped to my knees in search of treasure. Then I crawled around and looked and sniffed, and probed, and hunted until—guess what? I found another dime. I couldn’t believe my good fortune! This time I bought my older brother an Oh Henry! candy bar and myself five pieces of penny candy.

And so it went. Every day I’d drop to my hands and knees, find a dime, and marvel at my good luck. Sometimes I’d only spend five cents, and the next day I’d buy a fifteen-cent kite. All through that spring and well into the summer I bought Fudgesicles on hot days, kites on windy days, and candy bars when I was thinking of my brother. And every single day Grandpa would smile wide as I ran from the store with my treasures in hand.

This was the box that fell from my memory shelf when I knelt to pick up a dime the day my granddaughter was coming for Christmas. The entire rush of thought—complete with Whoppers, kites, and licorice whips—passed in a flash.

As I arose from my hands and knees nearly fifty years after finding that first dime, the adult inside me returned. “Why Grandpa!” I thought to myself, “You put those dimes there didn’t you!” Sure enough, at age seventy-two, he had gingerly lowered himself to the floor and secretly hidden a dime in a different spot each morning. He didn’t do it for the thanks. He never told me what he had done. He did it because he loved me.

I had a friend growing up who was given some of the most amazing gifts for Christmas. The year he turned sixteen his parents gave him an entire automobile. Not just a leather steering-wheel cover, or one of those smelly cardboard pine trees you hang on the rearview mirror—but an entire car. If his five-year-old son were to ask him about his “bestest and most favorite” Christmas present ever, I bet he would talk about that shiny red Chevy. But for me, my favorite gift fell off a shelf after it sat untouched for nearly fifty years. It was wrapped in childhood innocence and when the lid popped off and the contents tumbled out, it bathed me in the warm glow of my grandfather’s love.

Sometimes when I’m feeling blue, I open that glorious box and look at the kites and penny candy and relive the joy. Sometimes the box falls down all by itself. I’ll be walking down the street when a person wearing lime green clothing passes by me and bumps the box. Plunk. And you know what—I think sometimes my Grandpa from somewhere far away whispers, “Happy Christmas!” and the breeze from his sweet voice gently nudges the box.

Whatever causes the package to tumble, the result is always the same. I taste the sweet Fudgesicles, feel the tug of a kite, and imagine my Grandpa on his hands and knees—hiding a dime for his beloved grandson. And even though my “bestest and most favorite” present was never listed in any department store catalog, that extraordinary box—that memory box filled with Grandpa’s love—is far more precious to me than anything ever shaped by human hands.

I shall cherish it forever.

Crucial Accountability QA

Christmas Relationships

The following article was first published on December 21, 2005.

Dear Crucial Skills,

I am a divorced father of two young children. The separation occurred two years ago. We are doing a very good job of co-parenting. My ex-wife, “Sue,” and I had agreed from early on that we would NOT be introducing people we are dating into the lives of our daughters unless it was well into the relationship (e.g., six months with the possibility of remarriage). This is to protect the children from the revolving door of people coming and going in their lives.

That lasted for about a year. The last two Christmases, my daughters have woken up to two different men in Sue’s house. It’s almost Christmas, and I am afraid it will be yet another man on Christmas morning, creating more confusion for the children.

While I can’t control what Sue does, I would like her to know that this could be harmful to our children as well as their future values or opinions of their mother. But by confronting her on this, I feel like I would come across as way too judgmental, and would open myself up to her criticism of my parenting, just like I am being of hers in this regard.


Dear Perplexed,

Let me start by acknowledging you for the spirit of your question. I’m sure that everyone who reads it will be inspired by the pure desire it shows to put your children first. I’m grateful for adults like you—and your ex-wife—who are willing to suck it up when their own emotions are raw and do what’s best for the most vulnerable people involved—the children. Bless you.

With that said, let me re-frame the problem. This isn’t about what “may or may not happen.” This is about what has already happened. You had an agreement. She appears to have broken it. That’s the conversation you need to have.

You are rightly sensitive that if you appear to be throwing rocks at her she might defensively throw some back at you. In other words, if you come across as moralistic, judgmental, or accusatory, you will be incapable of focusing on the real issue: the agreement the two of you made in the best interests of the children.

So be sure to be hyper-attentive as you begin and as you proceed in the conversation to creating safety for her. She needs to be affirmed, respected, and appreciated enough that she understands this is not about you judging her, but about you wanting to have a strong relationship with her while you attempt to do what’s best for the kids.

Remember, people feel safe when they know that a) you care about their interests and problems, and b) you care about and respect them. So you might begin like this:

“Sue, I want to discuss a concern I’ve got when it works for you to do so. I want you to know I have no other agenda than to keep the air clear between us so we can continue working well together for the children. First and foremost, I want you to understand how much I appreciate your efforts to work with me over the past two years. I know it hasn’t been easy. But you’ve been wonderful to work with. Thank you for all you’ve done.”

Next, move into “Describing the Gap” between what you expected and what you got. Again, do so in a way that ensures she feels safe—that she interprets your intent correctly. Also, focus on the facts—not your interpretations or judgments of the facts:

“The issue is this: two years ago I think we agreed that we would not introduce new people to the children until we had a relationship that looked close to marriage. Is that right? I think we both felt at the time that this would help them appreciate the importance of commitment and would minimize instability in their lives. The past two Christmases the children have said that when they woke up in your house on Christmas there was a man who had slept over, greeting them in the morning.”

Now that you’ve laid out your concern—it’s time to encourage dialogue and reassure safety:

“Now, I realize that I might have some facts wrong. I realize also that even if this is what happened, your feelings and needs are an important consideration. I don’t want to be judgmental at all—or to keep you from something that’s important to you. But I want to be clear on our agreements with each other and continue to put the children first. So am I seeing this wrong? Is there something I’m missing here?”

At this point you follow the dialogue where it needs to go. Remember though, to keep the conversation focused on what you really want—what’s best for the kids. Not on your need to punish Sue for her behavior, or jealousy, etc. This is a conversation about a broken commitment, not a moral code.

Thanks again for your splendid example to me and others. I wish you the best in this accountability conversation and have every confidence your good heart will lead you right. And I wish you a Merry Christmas as well.