Tired of Dealing with a Whiny VP? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I am a sales EVP in fast growing but incredibly competitive software. The pandemic threw demand into overdrive, which is great, but it means quotas have ballooned as well. Our structure is regional and all of the regional VPs report to me.

My issue is one very whiny VP who is convinced that his team is getting the short end of the stick in terms of leads. He is always crying foul and favoritism at how named accounts and marketing leads are allocated. The current processes and communications were designed by my predecessor, and they seemed perfectly fine and fair to me when I was a VP. They make sense to me, so I just don’t understand the problem.

I would feel more inclined to pay attention if I saw that VP’s team crushing it with the leads that are handed to them. The last big event produced many folks to follow up with and his team didn’t go near about half of them. When I pointed this out, he claimed anyone who wasn’t contacted was with an organization whose headquarters are in someone else’s region and he didn’t want his people developing accounts they would have to turn over to someone else. That just seems lame to me. Even if a relationship does have to be turned over, his salesperson would get credit and a piece of the action.

I want to tell him to suck it up and get on with it, but maybe I am missing something. I was promoted about three months after he was, so we were never peers, and I don’t know him well.

What Am I Missing?

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Dear What Am I Missing?

Probably not much. I have never seen a sales organization that doesn’t have to manage conflict over the perceived fairness of structures, compensation, and processes. And even if sales is working like a well-oiled machine, it will be at odds with marketing. Then, of course, there is always the delivery organization to blame when things go wrong. I appreciate that you are seeking to understand and that you are aware you might be missing something. It shows self-awareness and the willingness to at least try to see someone else’s point of view, even in the face of your irritation. Not all EVPs of sales are known for their patience or generosity.

This is what relationship counselor John Gottman calls a “perpetual issue,” which means it isn’t a solvable problem. Gottman uses the concept in the context of marriage and partnerships, but I think it translates. It is a permanent situation that needs to be managed with regular communication, patience, generosity, and humor.

Social neuroscience research shows us that certain things cause our brains to go on tilt: being excluded, disappointment of positive expectations, our autonomy being restricted, and unfairness are top contenders. The neurochemical onslaught triggered under certain conditions can make almost everyone feel, if not behave, like a five-year-old. And some people are way more attuned to lack of perceived fairness than others. If you look at your entire group of direct reports, you will be able to pick out the ones who are even more motivated to win if they think they got the short end of the stick, just to prove they can win no matter what.

It sounds like you don’t have much of a relationship with Whiny VP. It might help just to spend a little time getting to know him and getting to the nitty gritty of his complaints. You can tell him you don’t really understand the problem—but you want to and you hope he can help you see it. Listen carefully for what you might be missing, such as things left unsaid or something he is sensitive about that he might not want to say directly. You never know—it might be revealed that there are problems at home or that he is suffering from a health problem. Or perhaps he is trying to direct attention away from performance for another reason.

The key here is to ask Whiny VP what exactly he suggests be done about the situation and his dissatisfaction. Is he just expecting you to fix it for him?

One question to consider: Is he the only one who feels this way? If there are others, perhaps the whole team could brainstorm a better approach. Just because the system worked for a while doesn’t mean it will work forever. Perhaps the changes caused by going into COVID hyperdrive shifted things in ways that aren’t immediately apparent. Big change fast can cause all kinds of subtle shifts that upset equilibrium.

What about other areas of his performance? Is he doing well there? If he is floundering on all fronts, he may not be able to rise to what is expected in the role he was promoted into. I always heard about The Peter Principle—that people are inevitably promoted based on their success to a position in which their skills do not translate, and find themselves floundering—but I never understood it until a few years ago when I saw it in action. It is especially true in sales that people are promoted because they are excellent salespeople, not because they have demonstrated management skills.

Take some time and ask some questions:

  • What exactly isn’t working?
  • How could it be better?
  • If you were me, what would you do?
  • Help me to see what you see…
  • What is your take on this?
  • What else do you think I should know?

You have every right to share your expectation that it is fine to raise concerns or objections—but once they have been examined and either deemed okay or rectified, whining is not allowed. It is also okay for you to point out when other VPs and their teams seem to be able to perform within the same framework.

Get curious. You’ll get more of handle on what is really going on, and then you’ll know how to proceed.

Love, Madeleine

About Madeleine

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response soon. Please be advised that although she will do her best, Madeleine cannot respond to each letter personally. Letters will be edited for clarity and length.

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