Jeff Schmitt: From the Bottom Up

How to Deliver 'The Speech'


“If I go down, you’re all going down with me.”

Our manager had finally crossed the line with this comment. She had delivered fire-and-brimstone speeches before. But this was different. Suddenly, she wasn’t Vince Lombardi Light, looking to get back to basics. Instead she had degenerated into a narcissistic despot who’d stoop to using us as human shields. She was passing the buck and covering herself. She may have considered it motivation. We saw it as a meltdown.

At some point, every manager must unload a kick-in-the-ass speech. Even the best teams get cocky and careless; they forget what’s important and what got them there. But here’s a reality check: If you have to deliver “The Speech,” you’re probably failing as a manager. Before you let loose with the grand oration, maybe you need a wake-up call. Sure, there’s truth in the adage about tearing people down to build them back up. But getting your team back on track requires more than threats and cursing. Want to really get their attention? Read the following recommendations.

1) Consider If The Speech Is Merited. Sure, you’re disappointed with performance. Before you go Knute Rockne, consider if the situation warrants an explosion … or coaching. Are you nearing a tipping point where financials or expectations dictate an intervention? Is there a broader motif, such as slow service, that could spill into critical areas such as customer retention? Should this diatribe be public and include everyone or could it be handled privately with certain members? Most important, what do you want to achieve? Bottom line: Weigh the offense against your options and the desired response.

2) Come with a Plan. You’re probably tempted to graphically challenge their commitment and competence. But you’ll only look clumsy if you ad-lib The Speech. You want your team squirming, stomachs sinking, minds racing. That requires strategy: a bolo-punch opening, unassailable arguments, and a call to action that echoes for weeks. Even more, it demands rehearsing to get tone, pace, posture, and gestures just right. Fact is, you only get one or two speeches before your team tunes you out. Make this one count.

3) Don’t Fly Off the Handle. A loose cannon. That’s how you’ll be labeled if you can’t control your emotions. They’ll snicker and lampoon you to everyone within earshot. Your anger, however genuine, must be calibrated for effect. Before you venture into the lion’s den, step back, breathe, and relax. Remember, an icy resolve often commands more attention than a rant. A pause can be as lethal as a pejorative.

4) Prep Them. Surprise! Surprise! No, your speech shouldn’t come as a shock. In fact, it should hark back to previous fireside chats, where you focused on listening and understanding. Back then, you expected that your coaching would establish how important the task at hand was. But the time for such niceties has passed. A hands-on approach is needed. They can’t say they didn’t see it coming.

5) Cite Specific Examples. The Speech is no time for generalizations. Be specific: What actions and underlying sentiments are creating tensions and why are they unproductive and inappropriate? How has it affected customers and other departments? Of course, outline how these shenanigans have hit the radar of those above you—and what consequences will follow if they continue.

6) Keep It Short. Your job is to shake them up and leave a lasting impression. The less said, the better. Let their imaginations run wild; it’ll keep your message on top. Don’t go off on tangents or pile on, either. It will only dilute your message. Cut quickly and deeply, then move on.

7) Set Expectations. You’ve identified the problem. Now what? Start by leaving no ambiguity with the takeaways. Specify exactly what you expect, along with when and how. Don’t forget to spell out the repercussions for failing to meet these expectations. Hammer home that the time for second chances has long passed.

8) Monitor Your Own Behavior. Their eyes will probably glaze over during your speech. Why? They’ve been mirroring your behavior. Is it any wonder you haven’t been getting through? Address it in your speech. Accept some blame and summarize how you’ll change. Then hold yourself as accountable as you hold your team for the result.

9) Rebuild Bridges. You go to battle with the people you have, not necessarily the ones you want. Afterward, your team will make excuses and entertain mutiny. That’s why you need to quickly reel them back. Reach out, one by one, to tutor, praise, and motivate. You’ve shared what needed to be said. Now convey through action that there are no hard feelings. Don’t let them confuse you with the message.

10) Follow Up. You’ve thrown down the gauntlet. But the weeks following The Speech will ultimately determine its success. That’s why you need to stay on the issue. Address it in interactions and meetings and constantly collect results. And when the time is right, celebrate. You may have devised the plan, but your team will ultimately win the battle.

Jeff_schmitt
Jeff Schmitt is an online columnist for Bloomberg Businessweek. He has spent 17 years in sales, marketing, project management, training, legal compliance, and recruiting. You can reach him via e-mail or follow him on Twitter.

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