Dealing with Domineering Clients

📷 Torsten Dederichs

Last year on a trip to Spain, I met a former Olympic sailor turned financial auditor, and heard their tale of a difficult crossing. The story provided a perfect analogy for managing bothersome clients. You know the type: meddlers who can’t let you run a project without interfering. They’ve hired you to provide expertise but often override your decisions or suggestions.

I’m sharing it as my former colleagues and I found it useful at the time, it helped give a little boost to our morale. When everyone is mired in a project and feeling low, it’s good to get a little perspective. This story helped us realise that how they were treating us was not OK, and it gave us a route to start communicating our upset to the client.

A sailing story

Stood at the helm of the boat, the Captain was surveying the instruments, watching for fluctuations in wind speed and depth. The Navigator was below deck and plotting a course through the upcoming rocky shallows. At the front of the boat, the Navigator’s Partner was watching the horizon.

Out of nowhere the wind changed and the boat rocked, throwing the Partner against the side of the boat. They slipped and clutched on to the rail. After getting their footing back, they moved towards the back of the boat near the Captain.

They were shaken, so the Captain offered reassurance. But then rain set in and visibility became poor, all while they’re still waiting for a course from the Navigator. Ever more uncomforted, the Partner started looked starboard and shouted, ‘Rocks!’

Looking ahead, the Captain could see sharp crags breaching from the sea in their path. The Partner started barking orders and the Captain followed the Partner’s course. The path was unsteady and jerked the vessel from side to side, unnerving the Captain and the Partner both, and the anxiety was palpable. What was needed was clear direction, not last-minute reaction.

Speaking clearly to the Partner, the Captain said ‘I’m happy to take information, but not instruction.’

The Partner stopped for a few seconds, taking a deep breath. They looked ahead, seeing the line of rocks stretching ahead. The Partner described the entire scene to the Captain instead of the details of their immediate proximity, and the Captain was able to come up with a course. They navigated through the rocks much more calmly, and they reached their destination united.

Getting clients and stakeholders bought into your process is important. You’re consultants, not secretaries, and need information to make the most of a project. Receiving instruction is demotivating for people and the instructor assumes they know best, but it’s not the case when they’ve hired specialists to work on a project.

This story works well for leading multidisciplinary teams and respecting the practices of different specialities.

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