To be brutally frank!

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It was 2005, by which time I had been an adviser for over 20 years, when my Regional Director approached me to say there was a vacancy for a T&C Supervisor and would I like consider it. Initially I was flattered until he said “I thought of you because you know all about the right and the wrong way to do things.” What could he mean? What could I possibly know about doing things the wrong way? However, on reflection, he was right. Like many advisers I had occasionally tripped myself up, usually in an effort to provide clients with what I saw as the best service, rather than meeting all of the procedural requirements.

I had though quickly become aware that I was having to spend more time getting things back on track than I would have if I had got it right in the first place. I had therefore learnt rapidly from such incidents and considered that this experience would be valuable as a T&C Supervisor to understand how advisers had dug most of the holes they got themselves into. Apart from that I had been subject to a Training & Competence regime, so understood the requirements, or at least thought I did.

So, I accepted the offer and as part of the change in my responsibilities there was to be a transition period during which I would formally pass my clients on to advisers that I would be supervising. The first meeting was with a high net worth client who had, before he retired, been a board director in the UK arm of a global company. The plan was for me to explain how my role was changing and to introduce the client to his new adviser who in this case had recently joined the business, having worked in a similar role previously elsewhere. Once that was done, I would don my Supervisor hat and concentrate on observing the meeting.

The plan was for me to explain how my role was changing and to introduce the client to his new adviser who in this case had recently joined the business

Initially, the plan worked perfectly and the client, who seemed in a playful mood, was soon asking questions, telling jokes and sharing stories to get the measure of his new adviser. However after about 8 minutes the adviser interrupted him with the phrase “To be brutally frank..….” and went off at a complete tangent!

The conversation faltered, the client and I looked at each other, he raised his eyebrows to ask what was going on and I shrugged my shoulders to show I had no idea. Undaunted by the silence the adviser continued talking and, out of politeness I think, the client re-engaged with him. A somewhat stilted conversation followed for another 5 minutes until “To be brutally frank……” again shattered the fragile peace.

It was at this stage that I became embarrassed and wondered what the client would think of me introducing him to someone who was being so rude. I looked at him and realised that he had his “The game’s afoot” face on and was rising to what he saw as an obvious challenge from this newcomer.

I did intervene in the subsequent melee to try and separate the warring parties, but try as I might salvos of “To be brutally frank……” continued to be fired by the adviser, countered by the client’s best combative skills, honed at numerous board meetings. It was like a Hollywood B movie with mythical creatures fighting for dominance of some forgotten realm.

Thankfully the conversation was eventually brought to a close, with my parting comment to the client being that I would telephone him as I would appreciate his feedback, which was code for “I’ll call you to apologise.” We left the client to recover and the adviser and I headed off for the feedback session. I wasn’t looking forward to this with the shadow of “Frank” looming over the agenda, so I was grateful for the 25 minute drive alone to allow me to get my thoughts in order.

Once we had settled down and I had taken a gulp of my much needed coffee, despite my desire to address the obvious issue, I asked “Well, how do you think that went?” I wasn’t prepared for the response which was “I thought it went really well.” At that point I looked at my diary to make sure it wasn’t April 1st and did my best to hide my surprise.

I took a breath and continued; “To be brutally frank is an interesting phrase, where did it come from?” The adviser explained that his previous manager had told him it was a great way to take control of a conversation from a client so that you could move on to deal with the issues that you wanted to address. The light dawned, this was part of the baggage he had travelled with from his previous role so I had something to work with. “How often have you used this phrase” I asked and was not surprised to be told that this was the first time, as it had only come out of a 1:1 meeting he had two months before he left.

I asked whether he thought it might be perceived as rude by some clients, followed by “On the basis that you used the phrase 18 times in 90 minutes, how much control do you think you actually had?” It was obvious that both of these questions caught him off guard and he had begun to realise his earlier assertion that the meeting had gone really well might have been a little premature. It was then I threw in a question that with hindsight was below the belt, “Did your previous manager like you?”

As you might expect, there followed a number of coaching sessions focusing on soft skills and including the value of using Open and Closed questions to control conversations, rather than relying on “Frank”.

I did call the client to discuss the meeting and surprisingly he said he was happy to continue to work with the adviser as he was impressed by his technical knowledge and thought he would enjoy knocking the rough edges off him as the relationship developed. I counted myself fortunate in the choice of client on that day, as others may have reacted very differently.

Finally, what did I learn? Well, as a new Supervisor this meeting brought home the fact that, just because someone has been classed as an experienced adviser elsewhere, didn’t mean that they had all of the Skills, Knowledge and Expertise for the role in which they were now working. Regardless how good someone might seem on paper, or at interview, all new employees come with baggage. Although some will travel more lightly than others, decisions about Training and Supervision Levels initially had to be based on first-hand assessment and any training needs identified and addressed as soon as possible.

This valuable lesson has stayed with me throughout my T&C career and in more recent times has been an important part of the training that I designed for new Supervisors, who were appointed to one of the 10 T&C Schemes that I managed, so perhaps I have a lot to thank “Frank” for?

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Derek T Davies is a freelance Consultant,Editor and Writer

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