Weekly update calls: The douchebag standoff
Unreasonable demands and challenging characters
I received a work call at 9.15 pm last night. It was from one of the co-consultants working with us on a government infrastructure project. I answered the call assuming it was urgent. It wasn't.
Consultants can get caught up in being hyper-reactive to client demands without taking pause. You do not always have to jump when the client says “boo”. The purpose of the call was to finalise details of an ongoing deliverable which would be discussed at an upcoming weekly all-party conference call due the next day.
Deep down, no one likes conference calls. They are usually a bit of a snooze fest and can take up big chunks of your day. It is very tempting to drift off during the call, check your phone, your email, or do some shopping on Amazon. Please don't judge me! However, with remote working, conference calls are becoming a part of our daily ritual.
We had the big all-party weekly update calls today. All the usual suspects from our client, all advisors, and the developer were on the call. There were a few moments pause at the beginning of the call where no one was speaking as we waited for the rest of the team to join. Luckily, no one was sharing their video feeds so they could not see me in my pink pyjamas! I took to my notepad to write how I was feeling. Writing it out by hand felt cathartic:
"Welcome to the worst part of my week. God, I hate these calls. They are the epitome of all that is bad, wrong, and broken with these projects. The calls are the exemplification of unnecessary bullying, point-scoring and flexing of power by making stupid deadlines and pathetic smackdowns".
Luckily, the call was not as heated as they have been in the past. In part, this was driven by a change in project manager by the developer. The old guy was the perfect combination of cluelessness, arrogance, and incompetence. He was also a rather rude chap which didn't help his pitch for the manager of the year award.
I heard on the grapevine (the most reliable source of information on any project) that the client finally had enough. They made a complaint about his conduct. The offensive project manager finally got the boot. It is amazing the difference removing a distributive personality can make. Taking a leaf out of Sir Alex Furguson's book, Leading, disruptive characters in the changing room were usually managed out of the club. The same applies to board rooms.
The calls are still painful, but run much smoother now. The new chap is the polar opposite of his predecessor. He is respectful and strikes the right tone with the client and advisors. We are all human; it is preferable to work with an amiable professional than an obtuse obstructive character. That is not to say that you must be a polite goodie-two-shoes to succeed in business. It is a tough market which requires strength of character. However, there is a balance to be struck.
Blue on blue: the dangers of friendly fire
Much like in military campaigns, during the fog of war, you are occasionally in just as much risk from your side as the opposition. The so-called “blue on blue” casualties. I am of course speaking metaphorically, and none of this is intended to denigrate or demean the sacrifices of soldiers in combat.
This blog post is limited to boardroom tiffs and tussles. Most of them can be fairly petty and hilarious with the benefit of enough time and distance from the main event. We regularly have more combative meetings with our clients than with the other side. For this project, our main obstacle is our client’s Machiavellian project manager. A sake oil salesman if ever there was one.
The project manager infamously set us unreasonable demands for work on the run-up to Christmas. He knew full well that the scale of deliverables would necessitate most of the team to work over the holidays. With a sadistic smile, he said: “We wanted to make sure you have a nice Christmas.”.
What a lovely chap. He would give Mr Scrooge a run for his money. Dickens gives a wonderful description of Ebenezer Scrooge, in A Christmas Carol:
"The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice."
The resemblance is uncanny. I think the project manager should pass by his local amateur dramatic society for an audition. In fact, I will refer to him as Scrooge from now on. Good old Scrooge would never miss an opportunity to do over the advisors. It is the only way that he could prove his worth to his superiors. It is how he justifies his salary. He would beat up the advisors, much like Scrooge counting his money, to show he is good at his job.
Foxholes: duck and take cover
The best approach on these update calls, it to find your foxholes. Seek refuge from the bombardment of takedowns and finger-pointing. I recommend not engaging in a skirmish unless it is a point that you have ownership. Otherwise, stay in your foxhole and avoid the snipers.
If you are unlucky enough to get called out for input, then be measured, calm and do not volunteer to do any additional work. You will often hear comments like “what do the lawyers think about this issue?”. You then rattle off a great answer only to realise that you have been on mute for 20 seconds. We have all been there.
Once I remembered to unmute, I pipe up with a few words. The best option is to give them your two pence worth then try to pass the buck. You can say that you would love to comment further but that the point has a commercial or technical dimension requiring consideration by others. Then you can go back to doodling on your notepad like a true professional.
Send them the bill for your time and live to fight another day. Scrooge will make his way to a theatre near you this winter...