Photo by Spojení on Flickr

Some of the most challenging situations for me were in my 30’s when I headed HR for a professional services firm. Twenty-five partners, all very smart and aggressive, and most very well-intended. This post captures the context for a tough partner, a snapshot of my understanding, and some ideas for influence that I wish I had figured out twenty years ago.


All of this work starts with data. What do you know about the person? What do you not know about the person? Let’s take a look at the similarities and differences between my partner and me (click on the table to get a larger view).


When I reflect on the dance that was in motion, I recognize that I was:

  • Trying to satisfy his expectations without knowing much about him at all.
  • Unconscious about how much my  upbringing and past work experience was completely opposite of his world.
  • Worried about looking like I didn’t know what I was doing (which was accurate).

My approach had been to create relationships with the practice directors and to establish and begin to work a plan to achieve the results. I saw my boss as an initiator and approver. I saw myself as the project executor. I took my boss’s criticism of me personally and tried to stay out of his way as much as possible. When I talked with others around the firm, I got a lot of agreement on that (beware of agreement from others that keeps you stuck for ideas).

For some people, you know a lot of relevant information. For others, you may not. In either case, you can organize, isolate, and gain insight into a person. Just be careful not to assume that you actually are right about the person. Even if you could validate your conceptual view of someone with that person, you’d only know what they want to share with you. However, if you are not hooked by a judgmental view of what you know or assume, you may find some very useful ideas to pursue.


Besides all these specifics about personality and background, knowing what results or outputs you have in common is critical. In this case, with my boss, we were aligned in a common goal to support each practice director in reaching specific project and result goals.  This fact should have driven the conversation and process much more than it did.


If I had been more strategic and thought about a different dance, some of the short- list ideas might have included:

  1. Ask him to share his knowledge—maybe even suggesting lunch.
  2. In different ways, tell him how good and smart his work is. That would have been the truth, but seemed strange to me given his 30-year seniority over me.
  3. Talk through ideas and test my draft work with him, working to learn from his perspective and to share my different perspective on managing and developing people.

The idea would have been to “draw him into” a different, less critical dance by becoming his student and gaining his confidence and endorsement.

Now, take the time to think about your most challenging people and situations. Don’t wait until the time has passed for creating a new dance!