Deal With Difficult People Before They Deal With You.

I was in a packed conference room with about 25 people. All the top leaders and consultants were in this room to report their status to the CMO of this company.

It was my third week on the job at the time and I thought I had everything under control. All I needed to do was relay the status of the project. Since I was the project manager, I had a good understanding of the details of the project.

There were multiple projects, and we were first up. I really wanted to get a feel for this meeting first considering I had never exchanged words with the CMO and I wasn’t even sure what he looked like, but those were the cards dealt to me and I had to present first. It was a big meeting, but I felt comfortable with my preparation and I’m a great public speaker, so I knew this would go out without a hitch.

I was 4 minutes into my “here’s the status of the project” talk. The CMO was on his Blackberry and wasn’t really paying attention to me even though the entire time I was speaking directly at him.

I was finishing my update with, “And the project completion deadline is driven mainly by the marketing team.” He looked up immediately and sharply said, “WHAT? That’s not right. That’s not right at all! This has nothing to do with the marketing team! Didn’t you talk to the business team at all? Didn’t you talk to your boss about this?”


I was caught like a deer in headlights. I didn’t know what to say. He was right, and what I had said was inaccurate. I tried to defend myself by saying what I had said was partially accurate, but before I could finish my sentence he simply said, “You don’t know what you are talking about.” He couldn’t have cared less what came out of my mouth at that point.

My boss wasn’t at the meeting either, so I just nodded my head and pretended I was writing notes. I apologized quickly and said I’d speak with my boss as soon as the meeting was over. That was the last thing I said.

He said, “OK, you can leave now.”

As I walked awkwardly out of the room with everyone staring at me, I was still a little flustered.

It was embarrassing. I had only been at this client site for 3 weeks and the CMO of this company just berated me in front of everyone.

I didn’t realize he was going to be this difficult. I assumed I knew how to deal with everyone. I was too comfortable with the project status. I didn’t ask questions about what the CMO looked for in project status updates.


I learned 2 valuable lessons from this experience:

1) Don’t say more than I need to. Say exactly what I need to, then shut the hell up. The more I talk, the bigger chance I will be embarrassed again.

2) Don’t try to defend myself if the CMO of the company tells me that I’m wrong. Refer back to #1. Shut up, take notes and let him know you will fix it next time. He doesn’t have time to hear why you think you’re right. I was wrong by speaking up again. I should have just nodded my head in agreement.


I quickly let my boss know what had happened and we worked on a corrective action plan so this would never happen again.

There were 3 more of these status meetings over my 12-month contract. Before every status meeting, I made sure my boss was well aware of what I was presenting. This prevented surprises from coming up during this meeting.

The last company-wide status meeting a few months later ended with a senior executive stating that the project I led was the best marketing project he had ever been associated with. The CMO was also present in the room. We were on time and under budget.

The CMO now knew who I was on a first name basis. He began to recommend that I lead other projects.

This guy was difficult because he needed to be difficult. This was an important project, and if it failed, his tail would be on the line. Once I saw it from his angle, we were one big happy family — but it took a lot of embarrassment to get there.

Deal with difficult people quickly before they deal with you. I viewed this as a challenge and never once did I think to myself, “Man, I really hate this place because he embarrassed me in front of everyone.”

It’s a trap to think like that, and you won’t get any sympathy wherever you go. I mistakenly thought I was smarter than everyone in the room, and I got what I deserved.

PS: Read the only resignation letter template you’ll ever need.