Man stands in his own shadow and wonders why it is dark.—Zen saying
I’d been working with Mike and his business for some time. One morning, we were talking about his five year plan and his strategy to meet the targets in the plan. The conversation was developing down some interesting lines, particularly when he told me that he had set a target in a particular area of the business and, when it seemed likely the business was going to meet the target, he moved it.
Now, I’ve come across a few people who advocate this approach. Personally, I think it’s nuts: why repeatedly set everyone up to fail?
Anyway, once he told me this, I realised that the previous conversation had been all about the business repeatedly failing to meet targets he had set it. Why would anyone set deliberately unattainable targets?
Trusting my intuition, based on a reasonable knowledge of the man, I said, “It seems to me, Mike, that you set your business targets it can’t reach so that you can beat yourself up about being a bad businessman”.
Now, this is something you just don’t say unless, firstly, you’re reasonably confident that you’re on the right lines and, secondly, you are capable of handling any of the many possible reactions in a way that will leave the client feeling positive and motivated by the end of the session.
Anyway, Mike sat there silently for some time whilst I looked out of the window. Turning back to him, I saw the penny suddenly drop. “Do you realise I’ve been doing that since I was a small boy?”
At this point, it is tempting to ask a coachy question designed to dig further. But Mike didn’t venture any more information, so I just said, “Well, you have a choice. You’re 35 now and, if you think that is still the most useful way to safeguard the business—and the careers of your staff, I will genuinely do the best I can to help you. But, if you would like a better way, we can work together to find it and I will help you implement it”.
Mike chose a new way and never looked back.
Many businesses are unwittingly held back by their owner or senior manager(s). That it is subconscious is the whole point: they simply don’t know they’re doing it—let alone how—yet they are consciously dissatisfied with the business’s performance. It’s a mystery.
Although it was a calculated risk, my point about the “bad businessman” was the only thing to say that would have shifted the business in this area. No amount of conventional coaching or training around planning, for example, would have addressed the problem, and nothing really would have changed.
As this true story shows, my concern is always the business and I address business issues with clients. However, I am able to see where problems aren’t business-related and to help people overcome them. I must emphasise that I never go beyond business matters unless invited to. Mike comprehensively interviewed me before I got the job and he knew what he might get—indeed, he knew that that was what was needed.
This article was commissioned by, and originally appeared on, the GWE Business West site.