November 9, 2017

A Vase of Roses Sounds Nice, but Not Always

Roses have been a profession of love through the ages. They are beautiful. They are thoughtful. They are heartwarming. They can express sympathy. And they have been getting men out of the doghouse since they invented doghouses.

But, believe it or not, they are not always a good thing.

When I was in graduate school, I had a chance to interview a Fortune 50 CEO as part of a study on how managers grew and developed throughout their careers. He said to me at one point, “I have managers out there who could look up a bull’s butt (OK, he didn’t say butt) and see a vase of roses.” I don’t recall what the larger point was that he was trying to make but I do recall making a note-to-self to not be one of those guys.

Our descriptions of current reality need to be accurate. For the things that are going well, you need to say so. You get no points for false modesty and downplaying great results. In fact, more often than not, it drives people nuts.

For the results that are less than what they need to be, you should describe them unflinchingly. Sometimes you inherit a bad situation: a turnaround, for example. Or some key project has gone horribly South. An accurate description of the situation helps set expectations and garner resources, and it shows your willingness to face the music. That latter point often buys you the time you need to address the issues. It also helps avoid having to go back later with more bad news.

Most important of all, an accurate description of where you are helps you get where you want to go.

I remember when I was 16, a friend and I wanted to go to my grandfather’s farm to go fishing. I had been there many times, but I had never driven there. I got lost (this is, ahem, way before Google Maps and GPS) and so I called my Grandfather for directions. I was not able to describe where I was very well…country roads…no great landmarks…and after my vague description, I remember him telling me, “Well you go West. That’s towards the sun, you know.” My friend and I had a good laugh about the lack of utility in Grandfather directions, but the problem was mine, not his.

Give this a try: Describe your current business reality, for now just to yourself. Describe everything that is going really well and also describe the bulls’ butts you are looking up. Be almost boastful about the good things and unabashed about what’s broken for your various stakeholders.

Maybe you are not ready to be fully public about this. Maybe this is all you can do, but at least you will know where you are. And that gives you a fighting chance to get to a better place.

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