Business advice: Setting things straight at the outset



By Bill Caswell

Special to Ottawa Construction News

            You are assembling a new team and you want them to work together and leave their social baggage behind. You need their buy-in to your mode of operation. The following tract is an approach. So, after you state the first four paragraphs aloud to the team, the team members themselves, one-by-one, should read aloud the next paragraphs until done.

Hello, team. We are starting a new adventure now, with me as your leader, and while you have been accustomed to a certain way of operating, I need you to adapt to my way of operating, which I believe should not be too difficult. It is based on the three concepts of: directness, timely reporting of your problems (which all people have), and respect.

To have a chance to apply and discuss these three parameters, we will meet once a week.

Never have a doubt that our success will be based on our team effort. Each of you is an important part of our team and it is why you have been selected to participate. I am excited by what lies ahead of us.

Let me explain my understanding of these three parameters.

Directness is about saying what has to be said, without beating around the bush. It often means saying things you would, in the past, perhaps have had difficulty saying – especially criticisms of your leader. Let me know what you feel, and I will do my best to respond. More important, I will do my best to have our entire team respond.

Timely reporting of problems follows from the simple fact that we all have business problems. Our degree of achievement comes from dealing with the obstacles in front of us – and right away. No sweeping issues under the carpet. One definition of management is solving problems created by change. A problem only occurs because there has been some change. And that is why I need you – our managers, the solvers of problems. Problems occur at an amazing rate, so we will have to deal with them continuously. The sooner we get them out of the road, the better it will be for us.  Sometimes, problems are referred to as “sand in the gears.” Sand continuously creeps in, slowing down the turning of the big gears for the operation of our system.

We want to suck the sand out before it builds up to damaging proportions – and hence the need for timeliness in dealing with issues. It is a constant and ongoing battle in any organization to get the sand out of the gears.

Our battle will be spearheaded by meetings every week and you reporting directly (parameter 1 above) when a new problem arises in your area. As a team, we will decide how to deal with the issues before us. (I know that many organizations like ours meet for a day every six months to review new problems that somehow did not make it to the weekly meetings, that people, quite naturally, had been holding back on. It is a simple fact of corporate life.  I hope that someday we will all participate in such semi-annual cleansings.)

Respect is both simple and complex. Ask 10 individuals to explain respect and you will get 10 different answers. The definition that I work with is that respect is dealing with every individual as an important person. And when that person says a “silly” thing, rather than dismissing the point as silly or stupid, you recognize that for that person, the thing said is “important” to him or her. Nobody says things that they know are silly (except at times of joking). Now you don’t have to agree with the “silly” item, but you do have to take it in and have the team decide its priority along with all the other issues in front of you.

Respect is not interrupting a person when he or she is speaking. If you interrupt, you are stating that: “Your idea is not important enough for me to listen to.” You wait until the person is finished, at which point you offer your own comments.

Naturally, if you scream in anger at another person, you are not being respectful. How would you behave if Elton John or the prime minister were in front of you? That is, confer a dignified, important, title on each of your working associates

  • If you do not meet commitments, you are not being respectful.
  • If you are late for a meeting, you are not being respectful.
  • If you make a deprecating statement (gossipy or false) about an individual, you are not being respectful.

I want this team to learn how to make “I” statements rather than blaming and naming others for perceived failures. That is, turn the phrase to your own situation rather than toward the other person.        For example, rather than saying, “George is always late with new pricing information,” say, “I need pricing information within two days of its change, and it is not happening.” Instead of saying: “You idiot, Sandra!” say, “Sandra, I have difficulty understanding your point. Can you explain it in more detail?” Instead of saying, =“You have a problem,” say, “We seem to have a problem in your area.  How can I help you deal with it?”

As our enterprise grows, you will have people reporting to you. Likewise, each has to be viewed as important to you.


Now is the time to admit if following these three parameters will be difficult for you. Perhaps it would be the time to say that working in such an environment does not fit with your own behaviour beliefs and you choose not to participate with our new team. Does anyone here want to make a dignified exit from our team? If so, we thank you for participating so far, and extend our best wishes to you as you pursue another direction.

Because the three parameters are so fundamental to the way I plan to operate our team, any choice by you not to conform to them will be treated as a severe violation of the trust I would otherwise have in you. I will reprimand you once (respectfully). The second time, I may ask you to leave our team. (If I ask you to leave our team, I assure you that I will assist you in finding work that is more to your liking because I view this not as “your” failure, but “our” failure.)

I welcome your comments.

            Bill Caswell leads the Caswell Corporate Coaching Company (CCCC) in Ottawa, or email


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