One time, back in the day at Business Objects, we were all flying back from Paris to San Francisco, when the plane pulled ten feet back from the gate and then stopped. The pilot announced that we were taking a delay of several hours.
Frustrated, one of our board members, a very polished, powerful, statuesque man immediately asked the flight attendant if he could get off the plane. He wanted to take another flight and felt unfairly trapped. She said no. A polite dispute ensued.
As we, the management team, watched in awe of his calm-yet-firm argumentative style, a strange thing happened.
“I don’t want to talk to you anymore,” he said. “I want to speak to the pilot.”
“But, but, but, what do you mean, you need to talk to me, because uh, uh, uh”
“I don’t want to talk to you anymore,” he repeated.
For years, many of us on the executive team would joke about how one day our terminations might go down.
“But you don’t understand, the seminar attendance was low because there was a blizzard that closed the roads and shut down public transportation.”
“All I know is we failed to achieve our lead generation goal.”
“But it was a freak April snowstorm, …”
“I don’ t want to talk to you anymore.”
“But, but, … uh, uh”
“I don’t want to talk to you anymore.”
The phrase developed a certain legend status to it. I’d forgotten about it for years until one day at MarkLogic, I was supposed to meet with one my direct reports and I didn’t want to. I wasn’t looking forward to it. I didn’t want to talk to the person anymore.
And then a huge gut-check went off. Wait a minute. What does it mean when I don’t want to talk to the person who runs <function> at my company. <Function> is an important part of the company. I run the company. I am hugely committed to the company’s success, which cannot happen without success in <function>. How can this be?
In business we are generally taught to be logical and data-driven, which lines up very well with my natural style. But this was emotional. This was a feeling. I didn’t want to talk with someone. What did it mean? Should I listen to the feeling or ignore it? I didn’t know.
It got me to thinking about why I wouldn’t want to meet with someone. Generically, why would I not want to speak to one of my direct reports? I started to generate classes of people who I wouldn’t want to talk to.
- People who don’t listen. There’s no point in talking to someone who doesn’t listen. It gets boring over time.
- People who don’t follow through. What good is agreeing to a plan and then have it not get executed?
- People who can’t keep up. When someone is over their head in a job, they can’t keep up with the conversation. Who wants to talk to someone when you have to keep backing up and slowing down?
- People who grinf–k you. Who wants to talk to people who nod their head in agreement when you know they disagree?
- People who can’t or won’t change. How many times do you want to have the same conversation?
- People who are negative. A huge amount of business is identifying and solving problems, but it can always be done a positive constructive way. Who wants to talk to Debby Downer every day?
- People who are mean. There’s a reason The No Asshole Rule is one of my favorite books, and it’s not just because I think the world of Bob Sutton.
Once I generated this list, I began to realize that the feeling was hugely important. If I didn’t want to meet with one of my direct reports — if I didn’t want to talk to them anymore — it was no small sign. It was a indicator of a potentially huge problem.
So now I listen to the feeling. Because I now know that if I don’t want to talk to you anymore, then it’s sign that someone is in one of the above classes and that’s an issue we need to, well, talk about — whether I want to or not.