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I'm a first-time manager and sometimes have difficulties judging whether my expectations towards my subordinates are realistic or not.

How assertive/ cooperative should I be in the following situation:

You work on a project with your subordinate, discuss it thoroughly. Then you meet a client (one you know very well but still, it's a client) and present the results together. After you presented a proposal, your colleague tells the client he doesn't agree that the proposal you just presented is the best one and goes on to discuss a different one.

Now, my first reaction is to have a quite serious conversation with the colleague asserting that this behavior is unacceptable. Are there any better options? If the best solution is to discuss it, how should I frame it?

Btw, it's not the first time this happened.

  • 18
    Before meeting with the client, did you discuss multiple proposals or just one? If multiple did you both agree to only present one to the client? – sf02 Mar 7 at 17:38
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    Perhaps the next time you need to make it clear to your subordinate that you are recommending proposal X and only X, but regardless let your subordinate know that the time for discussions is not when the client is present – sf02 Mar 7 at 17:47
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    The proposal should have been decided on prior to the meeting with the client. Discussions for or against a particular proposal need to be hashed out and decided beforehand and then presented to the client as a unified message. – joeqwerty Mar 7 at 18:39
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    It's all about expectations. Make sure you communicate your expectations to your subordinate or it will be everybody's and nobody's fault when things go south. – Mast Mar 8 at 6:49
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    Could the subordinate's alternative proposal have been motivated by anything that happened during the meeting (e.g. a client's expressed concerns)? Or was it clearly something they had always planned to present? – gidds Mar 8 at 10:09
96

Now, my first reaction is to have a quite serious conversation with the colleague asserting that this behavior is unacceptable. Are there any better options? If the best solution is to discuss it, how should I frame it?

Yes, I would say that a one-on-one conversation is in place here, where you explain to your subordinate that improvising or deviating from the plan during meetings is not acceptable.

You say this is not the first time this happens, but perhaps it's the first time it happens to you as a manager, and it is important to set things straight now to avoid this from happening again.

Be firm, yet respectful, and make sure to stress that this is not acceptable behavior and that they should stick to what planned for meetings, and that they should pitch with you any ideas or suggestions for meetings before actually doing them.

  • 68
    Also worth mentioning that it cuts both ways. You as a manager won't deviate from the plan the team agrees on. That way it's clear it's not about ego, it about making sure that your company looks cohesive. – Gregory Currie Mar 8 at 3:44
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    +1. One thing OP must point is: That kind of behavior don't make his colleague looks smarter, just makes the team looks unprofessional – jean Mar 8 at 11:30
27

First of all, this is worth establishing:

  • We're all in this boat together.

This statement requires both of you to operate as a team. Free discussion is something that is quite desirable when the team is together and deciding execution options, but the Client should only see the final result of this discussion - an united front. Which takes us to the second statement:

  • It's way better if the boat gets to the destination.

The Client may perceive this lack of well-defined roles as disorganization. This is dangerous - this affects their perception on how successful this project can be.

So we need clear roles:

  • As Project Manager, you're the Mediator.

You're the one in direct contact with the client. You listen to the Client's woes, discuss with your team, and offer the Client the proposed Solution.

  • Your colleague is the Specialist.

They're qualified to evaluate the scenario and offer possible outcomes.

So discuss all you want before the meeting. Raise possible scenarios and implementation options. If called upon at the Mediator's discretion the Specialist may chime in and freely discuss during a live meeting.

But no conflict of roles should transpire at a meeting with the client, at the risk of weakening the Client's reliance on the capability of your team to deliver.

Finally, answering your question:

If the best solution is to discuss it, how should I frame it?

I agree that this needs to be addressed. Show your colleague the importance of projecting an image of functional, coherent team to a client.

  • 7
    +1 for We're all in this boat together. That cannot be enough stressed. Unfortunately, some guys just don't get it (never) – jean Mar 8 at 11:28
10

You don't need to be "bossy", but you certainly need to inform that employee of a few things:

  • Such behavior is a major signal to the client that your business doesn't know what it's doing. You will either not win bids, or will get fired by the client. You will have a bad reputation with that client, which will spread to any other potential clients that they talk to. This has the potential of doing major financial damage to your company and risking the livelihoods of all of you. This behavior is not acceptable and the employee must find a different way to handle the situation.

  • Reservations about the solution must be brought up and addressed before presentation day. At the presentation, your company must show a united front, even if there are reservations or disagreements internally.

What can you learn on your end?

  • Are the alternative solutions actually better, even in part?

  • Which solutions do the clients prefer?

  • Make sure everyone involved (especially everyone presenting to the client) has plenty of time to give input on the project and the presentation before final decisions are made.

  • Could you officially present multiple proposals with compare/contrast and cost/benefit analysis, and let the client choose which to implement?

  • Don't involve unnecessary personnel in presentations to clients.

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    With regard to "don't involve unnecessary personnel" one could also stress "don't have managers relaying messages between technical teams" as this easily degrades into the party game called "telephone" – Chris Stratton Mar 7 at 21:08
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    There is a definite difference between being bossy, and being the boss. And in this case the OP was not the boss, a bit of compensating bossiness would probably be useful in preventing a recurrence of such an embarrassment. – user90842 Mar 7 at 22:22
  • I totally agree with your beginning points. Such dissent in front of a client is absolutely unprofessional makes the whole company look foolish. If the client is to be presented alternatives then that strategy should be agreed upon before the client meeting. – MaxW Mar 8 at 5:15
4

You can take a cue from Netflix's famous culture deck:

The best managers figure out how to get great outcomes by setting the appropriate context, rather than by trying to control their people

If you operate under the assumption that your reports would like to do the very best thing for the company, then it's clear that their behavior in these meetings is because they are doing what they think is the very best thing for the company.

If you have other information to help them make better decisions, as a manager it's your job to provide that context. If you're not having regular 1-on-1's, you should, and it would be a reasonable time to discuss this kind of thing. However, if not you should still invite them to your office for a discussion.

You: Hey Pat, I'd like to discuss some things that have gone on in some client meetings. I'm operating under the assumption that we both are interested in what's best for the company, would you agree?

Pat: Sure, boss.

You: Great! So, in our last client pitch, and in at least two other ones, when we finished our pitch, you started providing other options that we hadn't discussed before hand. From a sales point of view, that leaves us looking kind of weak and disorganized. We really want to provide a united front to the client. Does this make sense, or do you have some information that I'm not aware of?

At this point either Pat will agree with you - either out of fear or whatever - or they will disagree with you and/or provide you more context.

It's also possible that they disagree and are wrong.

If they do agree and carry on the way you'd like, great! Problem solved.

If they disagree - or they agree, but then do the wrong thing, then you'll have to approach those hurdles.

One thing that I would also recommend is that before your next meeting you remind them - "Hey, just wanted to double check - we discussed presenting a united front for the customer, so if they ask for alternate solutions, we'll just say, 'We do have some other avenues that we can explore, but right now we believe that this really is the best approach for you. If you'd like, we can provide you some comparisons later.', Okay?"

With the reminder, and a pre-canned script for those occasions, it will be easier for them not to get off into the weeds.

The basics here though are:

  • Provide context (ahead of time)
  • Discuss options
  • Provide frameworks and tools to keep things in check
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    Continuing on your discussion. Pat: "From my perspective boss, the best way for our company to succeed is to make sure we give our clients the best possible solutions. That is what I was doing in the meeting. Don't you think the client should be aware of the best possible solution?" – Gregory Currie Mar 8 at 6:49
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    @GregroyCurrie yeah, exactly. It's possible that the employee has more context, but without the discussion, nobody knows – Wayne Werner Mar 8 at 11:15
0

"You work on a project with your subordinate, discuss it thoroughly"

The last bit of this is contradicted by the rest of the question. You clearly didn't discuss your proposal thoroughly because otherwise they'd have raised that it wasn't the best at the time with you.

As manager, it is your role to ensure that communication doesn't break down within the team; so you must establish if this person isn't getting a chance to state their opinions; or if their opinions are getting rejected without sufficient justification etc.

If this person keeps embarrassing you in front of the client however, then I would just stop inviting them to the meetings.

Alternatively, something came up in the meeting that meant that an assertion made about why proposal A was better than B was broken, and that is exactly WHY you have these meetings; to ensure that everyone is on the same page.

  • 1
    Wow, you make some very strange assertions. I know plenty of people who won't tell you they think your proposal is bad during a 1:1 but they will when discussing the proposal with your boss present. Not to mention there are plenty of fools out there too. They need an audience to feel important. And: good bosses give some justifications and try to build consensus. But it's not bosses' role to spend whole days explaining their decisions to their subordinates unless under very special circumstances. The very point of hierarchies is to know who's resp. for decisions. It's a bad answer. – BigMadAndy Mar 8 at 21:02
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    @BigMadAndy what strange assertions? – UKMonkey Mar 8 at 21:10
  • To start with: "You clearly didn't discuss your proposal thoroughly because otherwise they'd have raised that it wasn't the best at the time with you." – BigMadAndy Mar 8 at 21:12
  • @BigMadAndy that's not an assertion. That's evident from the fact that OP didn't know that the other person was going to raise the other idea. – UKMonkey Mar 8 at 21:13
-1

It's your fault - you should've discussed the problem with your team and come up with a solution that everyone can buy in, then present it to the client.

If you can't agree on a solution, you, taking into account the input from the rest of the team, should've decided on preferred course of action and told the team that the decision has been made.

Instead, you ended up having a brainstorming session in front of the client. There is nothing wrong with that - as long as you are comfortable with it and the client is aware that it's a brainstorming session. You don't want the client to walk away having the impression either you or your team are bickering, unprofessional, or incompetent.

It's not the end of the world, just make sure next time your prepare yourself and your team and clearly communicate what kind of meeting your are expecting to have.

-2

If this the first time that You will mention this to this person, then it might not need to be serious.

You could turn it into a review of that meeting. What went wrong, what went right, what You expected, what actually happened, how You want the Client to view You, your Colleague, your Company....

Make this a case for how to improve "meetings" with the client.

If this is an engineer, then they could solve this problem for You.

But You say, that this has happened repeatedly. That looks to me as if both of you hadn't agreed beforehand on the accepted proposal. Which even more suggests to me You need to work on the pre client meeting.

Remember, as a manager You are not only charged with getting the job done, but also with understanding and managing the team.

  • 1
    You have a very strange understanding of management. I share with my boss my opinion about things and we discuss possible options. But if he then decides, against my opinion, that we should go direction A because <whatever>, I need to accept it. And I would always present this solution to the client, even if I was against it during the discussion with my boss. Other behavior would be totally unprofessional. – BigMadAndy Mar 8 at 21:07
  • @BigMadAndy Everybody has there own style of leading. wisetoast.com/12-different-types-of-leadership-styles – Robert Andrzejuk Mar 8 at 22:10
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    @BigMadAndy I prefer more of a "coaching" style. The one You descibe I believe is "autocratic". – Robert Andrzejuk Mar 8 at 22:16
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    @BigMadAndy You say that this is "unprofessional". How did You get to know what is and isn't "professional"? Did You one day wake up with this knowledge? Or maybe You "feel" what is right and what is wrong? Or maybe You were taught at a school/by a mentor /or a workshop/...? A stern discussion will teach this person the do's and dont's in a very aggressive way. So please notice the first sentence "If this the first time that You will mention this...". All Your expections can be conveyed in the way I describe here. – Robert Andrzejuk Mar 9 at 8:51

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