Plain talking, instead of letting your imagination take reins, can often sort out difficult situations
Khun Samai is currently financial director in a medium-sized family-owned business, which will be listed in the Thai stock market soon. He is a rising star who joined the company five years ago and has been well accepted by all family members and senior managers who have been working with the company for many years.
Unlike a few predecessors who had come and gone unsuccessfully, Samai is a true people-person who is tough on numbers and soft on people. He is the only strong candidate to take over the CEO role once the company is listed in the market some time early next year.
The chairman and founder of this company had read my article in The Nation, talked to me a couple of times, asked me to talk to Khun Samai once before deciding to hire me to coach Khun Samai to prepare him for the next assignment.
Up until now, I had already had a few coaching sessions with Khun Samai; he is a fast and enthusiastic learner. However, because he pays a lot of attention to his people, he seems to be too worried about the feelings of others.
Today, he came to our coaching meeting, looking a little upset.
“What’s wrong, Khun Samai? You look unhappy today,” I asked.
“I just finished the monthly executive meeting a few minutes ago; my boss told me that one of my best team members, who I had planned should succeed me, had requested to be transferred to another department. This was a surprise as I had no clue that he was not happy with me. I was so embarrassed not knowing what was going on with the people under my supervision,” he said, sounding disappointed about the situation.
“Khun Samai, I can see how bad you feel about this situation. However, I will not know how to help you unless I understand the situation. Would you mind elaborating a little bit more? How did your boss know about this? Why, you think, would your staff want to be transferred? etc, please.”
Then Khun Samai told me that one of his best people – Khun Daeng – had an informal conversation with a secretary of another director about the transfer. The secretary later shared this matter with her boss, the director informed the chairman and in the recent executive meeting, the chairman had asked if he was aware that one of his people would like to be transferred. He felt upset not only because he was embarrassed in the meeting but also because he had regularly told his people that if anyone felt unhappy with anything, he would like them to talk to him first but Khun Daeng decided to talk to another person instead. He thought this was a sign of immaturity and unprofessionalism.
“Daeng had been working with me for more than four years. Actually, I recruited him and groomed him to be my successor. I thought we got along very well, until today. I was unaware that we had gaps,” Khun Samai said.
“Thank you, I now understand. A question for you, please be honest, how do you feel about Khun Daeng now?” I asked
“I’m disappointed,” he said.
“Have you talked to Khun Daeng yet?”
“No, I did not and will not either?” Khun Samai insisted, emotionally.
“He did not talk to me so why should I talk to him!” replied Khun Samai. “How do you plan to deal with this case?” I tried to understand his plan.
“I would let him go, regrettably though.”
“Khun Samai, take it easy for a while. Would you mind if I share my personal experience with you?”
“No, not at all. Please go ahead.”
“In my life, everything happening to me has both Fact and Story. Fact is the reality when something really happens and Story is what I create based on that Fact. When I was younger, I considered myself a jealous person. I did not want my girlfriend talking to any other boys but me. One day, I called her. She did not pick up and, even worse, did not return my call. The Fact was I called, she did not pick up and did not return the call, but I started creating my own story about that situation wondering where she was, with whom she stayed, whether she still loved me as before, etc. I later decided to take revenge by not talking to her, not returning her call, having relationship with other girls. It did not take long for our relationship to break. A long time after that bad experience, I realised I was actually trapped in my self-created story. Actually, the reality would not have been that bad if only I had spent my time and focus on the Fact instead of the Story.” I shared my personal experience and, in turn, asked him to consider what was Fact and what was Story in Khun Daeng’s case.
Khun Samai was quiet for a while, in deep thought. Suddenly, he exclaimed, “Mostly it was the story I created!”
I smiled and told him that “you just finished narrating one negative story, if you had to write another one with the opposite plot – a positive and happy-ending one. How would the story be?”
It did not take long for him to come up with a new version. “Daeng might not be serious about this transfer; he may have talked about something else with his friend and happened to mention this without really meaning it. Additionally, he might have felt guilty about talking to me about the possibility of being transferred to another department because he knew how much hope I had in him. He must have been in a dilemma deciding which way to go. I sympathise with him,” he smilingly described his new movie.
“Excellent, Khun Samai. However, both were your own stories built on the fact that one of your subordinates talked to someone about a transfer without talking to you first and your boss happened to hear it and mentioned it in the recent meeting.”
“Yeah, that was it” he admitted.
“How can you figure out which story was close to the reality?” I challenged.
“I need to talk to Khun Deang.”
“Alright, excellent. When can you do that?”
“Right after the session,” answered Khun Samai.
“What if he said, he did not say so?”
“I would listen to him.”
“What if he said, he wanted to be transferred?” I pushed a little further.
“I would ask for the reasons.”
“Would you be let down if he decided to go?” I probed further.
“Umm. I might regret it but not get angry with him.”
“Why? Didn’t he disappoint you?”
“I just learned not to create my own story, I, therefore, will only focus on Fact,” he affirmed
“I am so glad to hear that, what have you learned today?” I congratulated and tried to conclude the session
“I like the Fact and Story stuff. It made me realise that I had been judgemental many times only because I spent my time making up my own story and stayed in it. Thank you for enlightening me, great coach!”
“You are overstating, Khun Samai. Actually, I have done very little, you deserved all the credit – great coachee!” I closed the conversation that day.
Apiwut Pimolsaengsuriya is executive partner of Orchid Slingshot and a certified executive coach from International Coach Federation (ICF). Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org