Fire, Ready, Aim

by Pamela A. Scott

I was talking with one client this week about the climate in his office. The economic slowdown is having some impact, he said, but they’re still doing business and keeping people billable.

Fire, Ready, Aim“There’s some tension, for sure,” Fred said. “You listen to all the dire media reports and news of layoffs at other firms–people are wary. On top of all that, it doesn’t help when my office manager, Susan, screams at staff when anything goes wrong.”

Say more, I asked.

“Susan’s interpersonal skills are definitely lacking,” Fred said. “She sees things only from the financial side. If a project goes over budget, she lights into the project manager (PM). She really adds to the tension around here.”

Looking at the situation in a little more detail, we realize Susan doesn’t have the same perspective as the PM. She comes from a financial background. She looks at things in black and white—we made money, we lost money.

When they go over-budget on a job, Susan screams at the PM. He or she is the one responsible. And Susan is the one who has to report the bad financial news to the owner. She doesn’t like being in that position, either.

Of course, the PM knows it isn’t that simple. The PM realizes his success depends on the relationship with the client. Sometimes he’ll do something extra to please the client and realize it will hurt the project budget.

At other times, the PM may not have budgeted enough time for tasks in the project.

Regardless of the situation, Susan screams at the PM (which others hear) and huffs back to her office. No communication takes place.

As Fred and I talked, we decided Susan needs some coaching. Her behavior is unprofessional and disruptive. Fred can’t let her continue to get away with it.

Here is the plan for Fred coaching Susan.

He confronts her on her behavior and how he wants to see it change. [If Fred is one of those folks who does not like conflict or to confront others, he needs to read Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott (no relation).]

1. Susan needs to learn to ask questions of the PM in a non-threatening manner and in a tone of voice appropriate for the office. Fred will have to give her a conversation opener she can use, such as:

“I saw that Project X ran over budget by $X,000. I am going to have to explain that to the CEO when we take a loss on that job. Would you help me understand what happened here?”

She does not want to say something like “Tell me what went wrong on this job”—too confrontational. She needs to gather information. “Can you help me understand” is one of the strongest forms of questions you can ask.

2. Susan needs to learn the business cycle so she understands engineering firms are in the relationship business. Coming from a financial or operational background, she doesn’t really understand what “relationship business” means to Fred—networking, marketing, etc.

She needs to see figures related to repeat business (percentage and actual dollars), referrals, lost clients. Those figures will help her black and white thinking understand the gray world of relationships.

3. Susan also needs to understand how she comes across to others. People who behave like Susan tend to not realize that they leave a wake behind them, as it says in Fierce Conversations. Just like a boat that leaves a wake behind, everything Susan says and does has a ripple effect through the firm.

What other boats is she tipping over with her wake?

Susan needs to change from her “Fire, Ready, Aim” mentality to one where she gets ready mentally, has the conversation with the PM, then realizes she doesn’t need to fire at all.

If you found these tips from Pam Scott of value and are a PMP looking to earn PMI PDUs, you might be interested in her self-paced, downloadable courses at


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