How Laura Fenton is using her own past and awkward experiences to co-create Gate One’s latest coaching and feedback initiative.

As a management consultant, I work with a whole range of different people. Some relationships light me up instantly, and some can be more difficult. When I was a junior analyst, one client, Brian we shall call him, was particularly challenging for me. He talked over me at meetings, made decisions I fundamentally disagreed with, and changed direction without consulting his team. But he was my client, and I didn’t think it was my place to openly disagree with him. Instead, I sought solace, texting my colleague to vent my frustrations.

All was well and good until one day, in my haste, I sent my stream of consciousness not to my colleague, but to Brian, my client. I felt the heat flow through me. RETRACT! RETRACT! But it was too late. The damage was done. I prepared myself for my exit interview and owned up to my manager. She told me to face it head on and apologise.

Time to apologise

The next morning, after a sleepless night, I took the train to Brian’s office, tail between my legs, and armed with a box of biscuits to grovel with. I pondered whether being fired would be less painful than the conversation I was about to embark on but soon came to my senses.

When I walked in, Brian chuckled at the box of Scottish shortbread that was wilting in my quivering hand. “I’m gluten free”. Great start Laura.

But he wasn’t laughing at my badly researched attempt at a gift, he was laughing at my apology. He was very understanding but asked that next time I disagreed, to talk to him about it. That was very helpful advice – why hadn’t I thought of that myself?!

Lessons learnt

Since these early experiences in my career, I have become more and more interested in the causes of conflict at work – and how to best manage them. The truth is, most people (particularly us Brits!) don’t know how to disagree in a structured and meaningful manner. Giving feedback can be a total minefield, running the risk of making people feel insulted or uncomfortable.

I’m now co-creating our Gate One internal coaching and feedback programme, where we encourage a culture of regular, timely feedback and open conversations, both within our team and across our client engagements too. We have developed and implemented proven models to help navigate those difficult conversations, to better move towards constructive outcomes. Disagreements and healthy debate are a part of generating great ideas, stronger relationships and indeed navigating through complex transformation agendas. This ethos facilitates an inclusive working environment both at Gate One and between our clients too. Candour is one of our key company values, and a candid approach to solving difficulties with our clients helps our consultants better become trusted advisors, and catalysts to hold up a mirror to potentially ineffective behaviours and decisions.

Brian taught me a lot that day. Sometimes disagreeing is exactly what is required for a situation to move forward – if it’s approached with respect and a desire to generate a better outcome. Get the message?!

The Coaching and Feedback programme has created an impartial, confidential forum for our people to discuss concerns and career trajectories and build skills in listening and coaching.

LAURA FENTON | SENIOR CONSULTANT

Laura is a Senior Consultant at Gate One, with experience across a broad range of industry sectors. She has been involved in several Gate One Incubator ideas and also plays a pivotal role in developing our coaching model.