1 Percent Better: How to Have Tough Conversations

Recently, I was in a meeting with some of our sales development reps and one of them asked me: “What is your definition of leadership?”

I paused, not being immediately ready with an answer, which is a little out of character for me. I realized that I hadn’t taken time to fully articulate how I feel about leadership, running a company, or what has made ZoomInfo successful. 

That’s what this series is for. I want to share my thoughts on being a good leader. Some are quick and to the point, while others will need a bit more room to explain. 

Let’s kick off with something I think is foundational to being a good leader: the ability to have tough conversations. 

Tough conversations might happen when leaders or teams are trying to collectively get better, but have misaligned visions. Or when individuals or teams have strayed too far from the original plan. Or when performance isn’t matching up to expectations. 

Regardless of why a hard conversation is needed, that’s the bottom line — it’s necessary. Because they often produce great things. There’s not a single person on my direct team with whom I haven’t had a difficult conversation. That’s because I see something GREAT for every employee that works at ZoomInfo. If there’s ever a case of someone not meeting their potential or not seeing the bigger picture, I make sure to address it. 

As I’ve built ZoomInfo over the years, I’ve realized that alignment is essential to success. I know and have even said to myself that “alignment” can sound too jargony, an empty word in the corporate world. But here’s what I mean: organizational leaders can have different visions and philosophies of how to run individual teams, build software, and handle issues. But there’s only one way to run a business, and that’s through gaining alignment across leadership and individual contributors on how to operate with a forward-thinking outlook — and iterating when things aren’t going well. 

This type of alignment will always be out of reach if you can’t have tough conversations. When you avoid difficult conversations, you’re essentially saying that you’re OK with something not being as good as it could be. If you want to grow a great business, you can’t be satisfied with that. 

Too often, leaders will say, “My company is good at A, B, and C, but we’re never going to be really good at X, Y, and Z.” This mentality and acceptance creates stagnant companies. Great leaders should be focused on improvement wherever it’s needed, because that’s the only way to achieve greatness.

One of ZoomInfo’s core values is to be 1% better every day, and this constant reach for greatness inevitably leads to tough conversations.

Alright, you get it. It’s important to have tough conversations, but it may seem really stressful to initiate them. Here’s how I approach them.

First, establish what the issue is and what needs to be changed. 

Best-case scenario, you have data that can drive your conversation, something tangible that you can point to and identify what issues you’re seeing. Metrics can be very simple proof-points to show others how you or your team is performing.

Once you’ve pinpointed the issue, consider your approach.

These conversations should be about solving a problem together. We’re all partners in the success of the organization and in the success of each individual. My employees know that they have my full support and our difficult chats reflect that. 

I’ll ask things like, “Is there something that I can do to help?” or “Is there a bottleneck somewhere that I can clear for us?” This makes the problem something that we’re taking on together.

You want to make sure that your employees know that you’re on their side. The person that you’re talking to should know and trust that you believe in them and that they can be successful. You’re giving them feedback because you know that they can achieve more. If you don’t instill this reassurance, you’re going to have team members leave — it’s that simple. 

Next, you have to practice what you’ll say. 

When you know that you need to have a difficult conversation, it can obviously cause you to worry. You’re understandably nervous about how the person will take the feedback. This can cloud your thought process on what your message is and how you should deliver it. 

I don’t work from a template because every situation is unique and every person deserves a tailored conversation. But I do prepare thoroughly beforehand each time. Properly preparing to give feedback is essential, because if you’re not effective at communicating your expectations, you can’t expect your team to improve.

Finally, you need to really listen to make sure that you’re both aligned with what’s expected.

It’s easy to jump to conclusions about why something wasn’t done a certain way or why someone’s performance is slipping, but you can’t do that. 

There are times when I assume someone lacks passion or drive for what they are working on. My goal in these situations is not to call someone out, but to prove myself wrong. I talk with them and ask questions and try to give them the benefit of the doubt, to see if my perspective can be changed. 

And what I’ve discovered is that most of the time, it’s not that people aren’t driven, it’s that they’ve lost focus. This can happen because of any number of factors: their scope of work is too large; they can’t dedicate enough time to what’s most important; they’re heading in the wrong direction because their focus has been skewed; or they can’t see far enough ahead to understand why what they’re doing is essential. 

Once you figure out why they’ve lost focus, you can set them back on course. The best way to do this is establish tactical plans for improvement and frequently check back with them. Not in an overbearing way, but in a way that communicates support for them. 

And when they show improvement, you should celebrate and help them recognize that their hard work got them there. 

Tough conversations are just that — tough. They won’t get any easier, but you can practice being good at them. You’ll quickly gain the positive changes you seek when you can execute them correctly.