How to have tough conversations at work

January 21, 2022
Mariam Zohouri

It’s lonely at the top. 

From pivoting through the pandemic to protecting your employees’ mental health, as an executive you’re carrying a lot on your shoulders—all while keeping a brave face and reassuring your team that you’ve got this.

But… what if you don’t?

Enter ZJ Hadley: an executive coach dedicated to helping bosses thrive.

We sat down with her to find out how you can give and receive feedback that’s actually helpful, and why tough conversations are the key to being a better leader and building stronger, more trusting teams.

Here’s what she had to say. 

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Mariam Zohouri: Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

ZJ Hadley: I’m an executive coach, but I took a non-traditional path. I was always interested in tech in part because I don’t have a post-secondary education. I aged out of foster care and was homeless sometimes. It’s hard when you don’t have a good start in life. 

But not having a degree doesn’t mean you’re not smart or capable. People who overcome adversity are great, creative problem solvers. You learn things they don’t teach you in school. 

I’ve always wanted to work. When I was a kid, people gave me dolls and asked if I was going to play mommy. But I never really wanted kids, so I would play “office” with my toys. 

Tech is always moving fast, so just having the right skillset got me into an early stage startup. I doubled my salary over a couple of years, and refined my work to do what I loved most. That was HR for a while, until I realized that talking to executives was my super power.

Mariam: On your website, you make it clear that your services are not therapy. Why make that distinction?

ZJ: I believe everyone should go to therapy, and I don’t want anyone to think coaching will replace that. 

Therapists and coaches want to help you be your best self. But I’m dealing with it in a more professional and forward-focused way. I’m not qualified to help you unpack your past traumas but I can help you define your strengths and build a career you love.

Mariam: And how do your services as an executive coach differ from a regular life coach?

ZJ: There’s overlap. You’ve now got Dayana at Growclass, and she’s an incredible, life-changing coach. My coaching is rooted in your work. How can you do it differently and make it better? 

I have a knack for understanding how businesses work. I’m interested in your revenue model, how you’re marketing, who your investors are, and how you’re treating your employees. 

Being a CEO or executive is lonely. There’s a lot of pressure. You have doubts but they’re hard to express because you want to support your team. You don’t want them to lose confidence in your company. People’s livelihoods depend on you, especially in a pandemic. 

As a CEO you put on a brave face, that you have everything under control. You want people to think your startup is doing great. But no one’s startup is doing great.

That’s why peer groups are so helpful for executives. But with a trusted advisor, you get a uniquely safe space for open conversations that you might not have with your peers. You don’t have to worry about the implications of what you’re saying. It’s amazing how much you can cover in an hour that’s focused solely on you.  

Mariam: You really understand the unique challenges executives face. Have you always been like this? 

ZJ: Years ago, after a team meeting, I cornered an executive who was fed up with some power struggles in the office. I told him that he has to figure it out, because he’s the one with the seat at the table. I’m there to help but he can’t just throw his hands up and say “well this is a mess!” 

I was a junior HR person at that time. So it seems totally out of line right? But he was like, “you’re right.” When I shared this story with my mentors they helped me recognize that I was coaching him, and that I have something special: I’m not intimidated by someone’s title. 

I don’t let my nerves stop me from having a difficult conversation that can make work better. 

Because executives are so isolated, sometimes no one will tell them the truth. People want to keep their jobs and I get that. But that’s why executives need someone who can be direct with them. And that’s where I shine.

Mariam: That’s why I loved your last workshop with Growclass, where you talked about how to give and receive feedback. What are your top tips?

ZJ: Humans are self-centered. We’re worried about us. We struggle to think about ourselves objectively. So for your feedback to be meaningful, don’t use language that attacks the person you’re talking to. 

Instead of saying “You never listen. You always do this.” say “I feel this way when this happens.” 

Focus on the objective reality of the situation to mitigate other people’s defensiveness, making it easier for them to listen to what you have to say. SBI, which stands for Situation, Behavior, and Impact, is a powerful framework for giving feedback this way. 

Don’t assume people’s intentions. You never know what someone else is going through. People usually aren’t just trying to piss you off. 

Mariam: Does your thinking here have anything to do with integrity? I ask because you describe integrity as being an uncompromising core value of yours.

ZJ: Integrity is about doing the most right thing you can do in a situation, even if it’s not self-serving. I have a hard time lying to people. One of my mantras is that I’m not your cheerleader. 

Years ago, I reported some numbers to my boss that weren’t positive. Their response? “Why can’t you be more upbeat? You’re supposed to build me up.” But these are numbers. I can’t spin them, and I don't want to because that could hurt the business. 

I'm serving you by telling you the truth. Does it get me in trouble? Often. So I have continued pivoting my career to find a place where honest, collaborative feedback is embraced. 

You can’t change everything about yourself, and you shouldn’t want to. Instead, look for environments where your core qualities are appreciated… and people will pay for them. 

Mariam: Do you need to prepare your clients for this kind of honesty?   

ZJ: Absolutely. I talk to them about it from the start to make sure they’re comfortable with it. I’m definitely not the right coach for everybody.

The funny thing is that a lot of the clients I work with—especially women—already overthink everything. So my hard truths are telling them that they’re competent and that their ideas are great. 

Often these leaders want to communicate more like me, to give hard truths to people at work and stand up for themselves. And I’m happy to help them achieve that!

Mariam: When you’re in a system that hasn’t been built for you, you are endlessly trying to please others and make them feel comfortable about your existence. 

Would you say this is the most common challenge people come to you with? If not, what is it? And how do you know when your clients are making progress?

ZJ: People are feeling overwhelmed by the state of the world. It’s not something you can solve with a bubble bath. It’s systemic. When people come to me, they want to stop feeling stuck and start making the world a better place. 

People don’t realize how much of an impact you can make even if you’re not a social enterprise.

You can still provide a great culture for your employees, fight bias, and work towards equity for everyone in your orbit.

As for measuring progress, that’s something my clients do. I’m here to help you find the answers you already have, to explore what excites and fulfills you. Finding clarity is our number one priority—only they can tell me if they are finding it.. 

Mariam: It’s remarkable how much of this work is about understanding yourself better. Why do you think we struggle so much with this? 

ZJ: It’s a societal problem. Underrepresented folks are constantly told that they’re not good enough, that they must behave a certain way. 

We struggle to look inwards because of how this patriarchal, capitalist society has conditioned us to navigate our lives and careers. But more people are realizing that we don’t have to live like this. 

I was a child who loved to work. When I was homeless, I had to work three jobs to get by. I’ve put in the work. I thought it was pure and right to pull yourself up by your bootstraps. 

But now that I have the immense privilege to reflect on all of this, from a position where I’m not desperate to pay my bills, I realize how messed up it is. I’m un-conditioning myself from feeling like I have to sit in front of a computer for eight hours a day.

I used to think that being successful meant getting to the top, becoming CEO. Then, you could do whatever you want. But CEOs are the most tired, burnt out people in their companies. That was shocking to me. What are we working towards? 

Let’s not just work until we die, or, if we’re lucky, to enjoy a couple of years of retirement. Let’s do work that makes us feel good and makes the world a little better. 


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