How I learned to not be stopped by the fear of upsetting people
Author: Hoang My Hanh, Senior Associate, Mekong Capital
February 28, 2019
In early 2018 I first started being the Deal Support for one of our investee companies. The very first thing I did was that I tried to learn about each management team member so that I could build rapport with them. I had assumed that it was a priority to build good rapport with them so that it would be easier for me to work with them.
In my check-in meeting with my Deal Leader, Chris Freund, I asked him what the most critical things were to be done at the company now and what I can do to contribute to the success of this deal. Chris told me that there is one thing that he thinks I can do well to help turn around the culture of this business is to speak up when I see things that are missing or not working and to hold people accountable without the fear of upsetting them.
My opportunity came when there was a project to reconcile their inventory balance as there was a mismatch between the old manual accounting records and the new IT system. The team initially committed to get the project complete by the middle of April. Then they delayed it until the end of May. They kept making a lot of excuses in the management meeting about how hard the project was, how many steps and many departments need to be involved, how much time and effort the team has been putting into this. The CEO assured us that they were on top of this task and they would rather do it slowly rather than come up with wrong results. The CEO made it sound very convincing for us and we almost bought in to these stories and we were about to align with them to delay the project again until later in June.
However, the more I thought about their explanations and the advice that Chris gave to me when I first started the deal, I decided to find out more facts. I sent an e-mail requesting a detailed list of what have been reconciled and what have not. Right after seeing that email, the CEO called me in the evening. Immediately, I thought to myself that the CEO must be really angry at me and I did not want to pick up. It was late and I was tired. However, I still decided to pick up the call. And I was right. The CEO was angry. She talked about how inexperienced I was and how little I knew about the business. I felt hot and unhappy but I knew that I should not defend anything as if I did so, I was buying into her stories. And when the CEO reacted that way, I thought that there must be something that the CEO was resisting and that was why the CEO reacted that way. So instead of defending or arguing, I listened authentically to the CEO’s feelings and acknowledged the fact that my request upset her. However, I recommended discussing the details later face to face in our next management meeting.
So, in the next management meeting, we asked the team for specific data about what had been reconciled and what had not. And we found out that less than 10% of the inventory was not reconciled. There had been a lot of projects pending due to the delay in that inventory reconciliation project. We aligned that many of the pending projects could move ahead and ensured there was a clear action plan to reconcile the remaining 10% of inventory. By practicing direct communication without being afraid of upsetting others, we not only got the work done but also inspired the team to honor their word and keep their integrity (i.e. do what they said they would do and do it on time).
The reason I am writing this story is to invite you to see the possibility of creating breakthroughs by speaking up and being resilient in what you are committed to, communicating directly and uncovering the facts. Often when we break through people’s generalizations and deal with the facts, there will be a clear way forward to achieve the results we are committed to delivering.
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Mekong Capital makes investments in consumer-driven businesses and adds substantial value to those companies based on its proven framework called Vision Driven Investing. Our investee companies are typically among the fastest-growing companies in Vietnam’s consumer sectors.
In January 2022, Mekong Capital founder Chris Freund published Crab Hotpot, a story about a bunch of crabs who found themselves stuck in a boiling pot. The colorful cover of “Crab Hot Pot,” complete with expressive cartoon crustaceans, looks like a children’s tale at first glance. But as one continues reading, it becomes clear that the work has an important message about organizational transformation, leadership and focusing on a clear vision for the future.