Rainmaking Problem #6: In Debt and Conflicted

Every other Thursday, I present a rainmaking problem for which I don’t have satisfactory answers. Here is another in our series brought to me at a coaching session by a professional whom I will call Hazel. I have seen this problem before and always have been uncomfortable with my answers. I hope you will offer your suggestions in the comments at the end of this post.

Hazel made partner at her firm about a year ago, after two back-to-back years of delivering over $3,000,000 in new business. Her biggest client in both years was an insurance company, where her primary sponsor was a man named Bill. Bill had also hired her to work on five matters already this year. Yesterday he called to inform her that he had been let go and set up a time to meet with her next week.

Hazel dreads this meeting. She knows she owes Bill a lot and wants to help him, both because she feels she has a debt to repay and because he has three small children at home. But she is reluctant to introduce him to her other clients.

After three years of working with him, she is all too familiar with his weaknesses. Though nice enough, he makes many sloppy mistakes and frequently fails to follow through on his commitments. A high-maintenance client, he requires constant attention and also takes criticism poorly.

There are ethical and practical aspects to her problem.

  • The ethical problem: She owes Bill a huge debt. Without his business she would not have been promoted to partner. He has also served unfailingly as a reference. She made a significant mistake on one assignment for him, which he caught and dealt with generously. On the other hand, she also is indebted to the people he will want introductions to. And she owes her other clients and contacts fair treatment, too. She is uncomfortable giving Bill her implicit endorsement in a referral.
  • The practical problem: She is most concerned about the ethical issues, but is naturally aware of the practical ones. Bill has already stated that he will give her business no matter where he lands. That pledge, she knows, would not withstand Bill realizing that she was withholding aid during his job search. If she refers him to another client who hires him, that client is bound to become aware of his shortcomings. If the new job doesn’t work out and he is let go, it could reflect badly on her.

I have been in a similar situation, myself, and felt as torn as Hazel does. What should a professional do in this situation?

(Got a problem selling professional services? Feel free to email me your problem and it may become a future “Rainmaking Problem.”)

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16 Responses to “Rainmaking Problem #6: In Debt and Conflicted”

  1. Mark Buckshon Says:

    The first thing I think of in answering this qustion is asking: What is hapening with Bill? How did he get original job in the first place: Is it because of some real talents despite his deficiencies, or was he a relative of the organization’s founder. Has his performance deterioriated and was he let go because of his failings getting worse, or is it because of other factors beyond his control (and why)?
    I sense the gist of the ethical question here is the problem that Bill is declining, and propping him up with a referral will only lead to damage at the firm where he is to be referred. In this case, I think you need to be honest with him, and explain why you cannot help — at least with a direct referral — but you can with moral and other support.
    But if the issue is a situation where Bill has real strengths, then you simply can link him to the appropriate places.
    If you know others who know Bill better than you, you might want to consult with them before speaking to him to see if there are underlying issues or problems; which you will then be able to address with greater empathy.

  2. Chris Williams Says:

    I really think Hazel needs to be upfront with Bill. Bill just lost his job. Probably for some of the same reasons which would cause Hazel to be concerned about referring business to him. Hazel has benefited tremendously from Bill’s connection. The least she could do is be honest with him in a tactful way about some of her concerns. Bill may very well be more open to hearing her insight based on his current circumstances and would appreciate her candor.

    I think this can be done tactfully by using the sandwich technique. Hazel should tell him how much she appreciates his past business and emphasize his strengths. Then she can raise some of her concerns. She can close by emphasizing his strengths again. Hazel should be empathetic and sincere in her approach.

    Hopefully, Bill would be receptive to her insight and perhaps there can be a future opportunity for mutual referrals once he demonstrates a commitment to addressing his weaknesses. There is risk in this approach, but if Bill is capable of changing he could possibly become an even greater source of business in the future and he would have an even stronger relationship with Hazel. If Bill isn’t open to addressing his weaknesses or receiving Hazel’s tactful insight, then there probably isn’t much future in the relationship anyway because it is unlikely he will be able to create sustainable business opportunities for himself or others.

  3. Ford Harding Says:

    Mark:

    Your suggestions are excellent. If we are frustrated working with someone or spend a good bit of our energies helping overcome their limitations, we can forget their strong points. At the moment Hazel described her situation, she may have done just this. It is a mistake that any of us might make. Some questions to her about Bill’s strengths might help her see the situation differently.

    This reminds me that I (and, no doubt, you, too) have seen people who did not fit in one organization have their careers take off in another. I will ask some questions about Bill’s fit at his recent employer, too.

    Your suggestion that Hazel get more information also makes sense. The more she knows, the better the decision she is likely to make.

    Chris:

    Yours is also a good suggestion and something that absolutely needs consideration. I would hope that Hazel felt she could follow the advice. My only hesitation is that neither of us know Bill. Hazel must be the one to decide whether what you suggest will work, given her knowledge of the man and the nature of their relationship. We all know people who cannot take honest feedback–though in my experience more can than we initially expect to be able to–and people who cannot take feedback from us. Once again, it is a good suggestion and I especially like your “sandwich” approach. I will explore the “how” as a part of the decision whether Hazel can be direct with Bill, then let her decide.

    Thanks for the comments.

    Ford Harding

  4. David Harkleroad Says:

    Personally, I don’t know anyone without flaws (and especially me). including some of my best individual contributors over my management career. When the flaws affected performance (this is important), I intervened (sometimes with ease, other times with difficulty), mostly successfully, but occasionally I had to release or reassign the individual.

    Mark asks a good question: “How did he get the original job in the first place?” Let’s assume for the right reasons (i.e., he demonstrated an ability to perform), and that he has generally fulfilled his commitments to his employer. In a case like this, I think Hazel could have a very meaningful conversation, in person, along the lines of

    “Bill, I’m very delighted do anything I can to help you out, and will happily speak to a couple of my clients where I can see a fit. There is one in particular who I’d love to introduce you to, but they are very particular about certain things, such as X, Y and Z. One of the things I’ve noticed is that sometimes you exhibit the following behaviors (focus on specific observations) which would severely impair your ability to be successful at this firm.” The key is to keep the discussion on performance, not on the individual.

    The conversation can go in a couple of directions. If Bill is genuinely unaware, he will appreciate the feedback, but may not know what to do. In this case, be prepared with some suggestions – either some reading, a course, or a coach she knows either personally or through her network, or….

    Also be prepared for resistance; sometimes the reaction is defensive, but this is also true of subordinates and many managers can find help from their HR departments or from sources on the web for how to handle difficult feedback sessions – these same tools are applicable here.

    Longer term, if Bill is truly a genuine person, he will appreciate the feedback, particularly if it helps him succeed in his next opportunity.

  5. Ford Harding Says:

    David:

    You have obviously practiced what you are preaching. Hazel has some advantages in having this conversation, including 1) the withheld but promised introduction, 2) freshness, because Bill has clearly not heard these things from her before, regardless of what bosses have said in the past, 3) an outside professional’s perspective–Bill is used to taking her advice, because he has been paying for it. Also, in my experience, most people are aware if their shortcomings (I once told a client that he came across as uncaring in networking and sales situations. Instead of rejection or confusion, as I had expected, he answered, “I know. My wife tells me that all the time.”) and are not afraid to talk about them with someone who seems sympathetic and offers practical suggestions. Hazel will do fine on both counts.

    The language you suggest is extremely helpful.

    As I mentioned to Chris, I fall short of saying that this is the way to go, because neither you nor I know Bill, as Hazel does. She must feel this has a good chance of working and want to do it, if she is to try. Bill is probably tractable–most people are–but . . .

    Ford Harding

  6. Christopher Ciampa Says:

    Hello Ford,

    Simply put, why doesn’t hazel just send him a few recommendations? She doesn’t have to get too involved in the process. Just a simple “hey, Bill, why not try these places?” That way, in case anything bad does happen, it does not reflect poorly on her, but at the same time, she is doing him a service, as she is indebted to him.

  7. Martin Stockdale Says:

    In my past I was “Bill” and much to my personal detriment no one was upfront and honest in assessing my strenghts and weaknesses. As a result, I stumbled about for some time until I did get that feedback. It made me a far better salesman and my career has flourished because of it.

    In Bill’s case, it sounds like he is further along in his career that I was, but I would have to believe that an honest discussion between he and Hazel is the best thing that can happen to him.

    If Bill does land a new position with the power to refer business to Hazel, but was offended by the discussion he had with her and no longer chooses to do so, at least she can rest well at night knowing her decision was the right one. Giving up business is a very hard thing to do, but doing the right thing is always the best practice.

  8. Ric Willmot Says:

    The responses are fine. A few additional points:

    1. Never assume the client is damaged
    2. Focus on observed behaviour
    3. It’s not the referrers role to cover corporate governance
    4. Never provide unsolicited feedback

    Bill has certain skills and attributes that are valuable to employers, else why was he in the previous role? Why is it that the faults we so easily see in others also hides their strengths? He has value to offer.

    Consider only observable facts, interpretations of the facts will always bring us unglued.

    Make the introductions and then allow the two parties to engage in their decisions as they do with any other business relationship. We are not required to make the world perfect for others.

    No need to provide Bill with feedback about his performance or behaviour unless he asks for it. Unsolicited feedback is always given for the ego of the giver not for the benefit of the receiver.

    Make the introductions and help Bill in appropriate ways that comfortably assuage our considerations – and then get out of the way. Your clients have hired thousands of people; they probably know how to engage in behavioural interviewing techniques and how to obtain references on past performance.

    For all of the faults that can be seen in Bill; he may well be a standout in his field compared to his peers. We could be doing a disservice by not recommending him. Good people are hard to find.

    Rgds,
    Ric Willmot
    W: http://www.executivewisdom.com
    B: http://www.ricwillmot.com

  9. Ford Harding Says:

    Ric

    There is a lot of wisdom here. Most clients are plenty sophisticated at hiring people and capable of making their own decisions. The words used to make the referral can be highly positive or cautiously so, letting the client know how strong your endorsement is.

    Whether or not to give unsolicited feedback depends on Bill. I have gotten such feedback that has been a real help, as I am sure many others have. I agree that unsolicited feedback is often, very often, for the benefit of the giver’s ego, but don’t think it need always be so. It is a caution well worth making, nevertheless, and a valuable balance to the other comments on this post. I will remind myself of what you said whenever tempted to give unasked for advice.

    Thanks for that and your thoughtfulness.

    Ford Harding

  10. Ford Harding Says:

    Patrick Kay, a recruiter from Singapore, sent the following:

    Dear Ford

    As an executive search consultant, this is my suggestion:

    1) While Hazel is indebted to her client Bill, she should never
    recommend someone whose work is not up to par – it is just not right. Doing this only sow seeds of future embarrassment for whichever client she recommends Bill for.

    2) What she could do is highlight Bill’s strengths to her clients whom she thinks can be a potential hirer for Bill, and also highlight some of the issues she perceive regarding Bill. It is up to the hirer to make their assessment. Sometimes what Hazel view as a weakness may not be that big an issue with a hirer. Also, the hirer will/should do their own background checks and are caveat emptor. They could even structure a ‘support’ team to ‘fill the weakness’ gap if they deem
    that Bill’s strengths are what they need.

    > cheers
    > pat, from Singapore
    >
    Patrick

    Many thanks for the recruiters perspective.

    Ford Harding

  11. Andy Hoye Says:

    Hazel knows Bill well, and now she needs to share her issues with him completely, including unsolicited feedback designed to help him. She sets up a two hour lunch at an exclusive restaurant with a private dining room. She needs to have pre-planned which clients she will refer him to, and tell him, when she calls for the lunch, that during the lunch meeting she will give him three referrals with personal calls. These need to be clients who could benefit from his principal skills, not those who could best withstand his weaknesses. At the meeting, she needs to first of all thank him for his work over the years, profusely but professionally, with emphasis on the specific projects that were the most helpful to her. She needs to be sure he understands and feels her gratitude. And then she needs to give him a personal check for $5,000. Or at least put it on the lunch table in an envelope.

    Next she needs to review with Bill, very candidly, his weaknesses. She needs to do this like she would speak to a brother. Very frank, with examples, and wait and watch until she is certain she is heard. He may protest a couple of them, but she needs to stay on topic and discount those objections. This needs to go on until he owns all of them.

    Then she needs to offer specific seminars or retreats where he could go to correct those problems. She needs to get his personal agreement to attend at least two of them, or she will not be referring him anywhere. Then she re-emphasizes the $5,000 check.

    Fiinally she tells him the name of three companies to whom she will make a call. He needs to know that they will hear the truth from her about his skill set and deficiencies. He also needs to understand that she will tell them he was a strong supporter of her and she is making this recommendation not only because they will benefit, but because he has been helpful to her and she is returning the favor. If they ask the right question which is “Would you recommend Bill to us if he had not been so helpful to you?” she needs to be able to reply honestly “Yes, with the qualifications I’ve noted and remedies which he has planned.”

    If he bombs at a good client’s shop, she will be covered somewhat by the qualifiers, because a good interviewer there will address them with Bill during the hiring interview process and they will be in file.

    He will be blown away by the $5,000 check, and hopefully her candor, and will continue to be her pal.

    Andy Hoye

  12. Ford Harding Says:

    Andy:

    When I summarize a situation in a couple of paragraphs, I know that different readers will fill out the characters in the description on the basis of their personal experiences. In this case, every reader sees a different Hazel and Bill.

    I make this point, because I suspect that some readers may take strong exception to your recommendation, because they see different Hazels and Bills from the ones you do. Some Hazels could pull off what your recommend and it would be hopeless for others. Some Bills would take the medicine, swallow hard, and benefit from it and others would storm from the table in anger, perhaps throwing the check in Hazel’s face first.

    Once or twice in my life I’ve been given some unsolicited, hard advice and it has benefited me greatly, so I like your approach. It is also true, as Ric Willmot pointed out in his comment, that unsolicited advice is often unwelcome. Your Hazel has a strong presence. Confident, direct and commanding respect, she practically walks out of the page into the restaurant. For someone like that, this could work well. It is certainly an option that the real Hazel should consider.

    The $5,000 check has me pondering. It clearly demonstrates her commitment to Bill and her gratitude. Does this come across too much as payback? That raises a larger issue of implicit payback in networking relationships, that I must cover in another post. Thanks for sparking the idea.

    It’s good to hear from you and to have you weigh in.

    Ford Harding

  13. David Harkleroad Says:

    I’m not so sure I understand the purpose of the check, which could easily be misconstrued – and not just as payback, as Ford notes. It could also be seen as a pay off, i.e., she is washing her hands of this relationship…

    In our consulting with companies on rewards / compensation structures, we caution that money is a very blunt instrument, and thus has to be used very carefully when delivering messages.

  14. Andy Hoye Says:

    David and Ford –

    Thanks for your comments. I had a feeling that the $5,000 would spark some interest. David – yup, it could be seen that way, but is that all bad? She’s in a jam. She owes this guy. They both know that. And he’s slipping. The $6M in business he sent her almost makes the $5K trivial, but it’s large enough to be a kind gesture…the guy is out of work.

    And ‘washing her hands’ is actually part of the effort here. He’s been a problem client. She’s going to give him three leads, with qualifiers. So if it all fizzles, and he becomes a barista, he can’t feel too bad. The upsides are all good (he gets hired somewhere, possibly sends her more biz…)

    - Andy

  15. Ford Harding Says:

    Andy

    I share David’s concern. Regardless of the intent, the passing of a check is subject to misinterpretation by Bill or by others. I am not a lawyer, but if Bill worked in the public sector (he doesn’t), there might well be legal issues. The discussion of what are appropriate exchanges of help in business development is a subject for another post. Thanks for raising the subject.

    Ford

  16. Hardingco Blog » Blog Archive » Rain Making Problem # 8: When Does Mutual Help Cross the Line to Corruption? Says:

    [...] In a previous post, an exchange of comments among Andy Hoye, David Harkleroad and me brought to mind an issue that has troubled me over the years. As noted in many posts (see, for example, Mark Buckshon, Bob Burg or Tim Klabunde) on many blogs and as I have described in my books, networking is based on the belief that if you help people, the help will eventually be returned by some of them in the form of new business and referrals. [...]

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