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Silence is not always golden: How and when to speak up and be heard

Canada Communication Leadership In Reflection Entrepreneurship

“Not being heard is no reason for silence.” – Victor Hugo

In this post, I’m going to share a personal account of failing to use crucial conversation skills, an incident that had serious repercussions for both me and the company I was heading.

Don't miss my follow-up post on how to prevent sad endings with better crucial conversations.

Despite significant success as the leader of an entrepreneurial building products company, I was terminated without any warning at the start of my fourth year. This happened even though I was well respected within both our company and our niche industry, where we were recognized as the North American market leader. Barriers to entry were low, and there were at least 30 regional competitors.

I am using this personal story as a case study to examine what went wrong and how similar missteps can be prevented. I will be drawing heavily on the work of authors Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler, and Emily Gregory, who together penned the best-selling business classic Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High.

If you have not read this book, I hope this post will inspire you to do so. I consider the ability to manage crucial conversation skills an essential life skill—often underused and overlooked—hence the lengthier nature of this blog post.


In 1996, I was hired as the CEO of AAB Building Systems, an entrepreneurial company based out of Coburg, Ontario. This privately owned company sold insulated concrete forms (ICFs), which are used for making outer walls, primarily for custom homes and light commercial buildings. Our product was marketed under the brand name Blue Maxx, providing customers with energy savings and extra strength.

ICFs were originally launched in the early 70s and then almost disappeared, before enjoying a resurgence in the 90s in response to rising energy costs.

After initially enjoying rapid growth, the company needed further capital to continue expansion. This resulted in the original entrepreneurial owners selling 50% of their ownership to a junior venture capital (VC) firm.

At the time of my hiring, the company had grown to about $9 million but needed additional funding to address cash flow challenges if they were to continue their projected growth.

As part of the purchase agreement, the VC was authorized to secure a new CEO, which was why I was hired, with a mandate to provide professional management and a strategy for rapid growth. The aim was to take the company public on reaching the “magic” but elusive number of $100 million, all hopefully within 5 years.

In my new role, I reported to the VC chair, who had himself very successfully run an entrepreneurial company before selling.

The VC had, over time, invested in ten different small entrepreneurial privately managed companies (in addition to AAB Building Systems).

The Great Unravelling

My relationship with the chair who fired me was good, and at the time, I considered him to have been fair, friendly, supportive, and professional. Our differing views on growth strategies and market approaches, however, created friction. Our relationship became even more strained when the growth I was forecasting for the current year was well below what the board wanted.

We also differed in management style. He was analytical and meticulous and was always looking for the single best way to grow the market. I, on the other hand, believed that there was no one best way to grow the market and that we needed to be highly flexible. We were investing in people, not necessarily how the product went to market. We therefore had a potpourri of distributors, be they contractors, ready-mix operations, or small entrepreneurial business owners. A case in point with respect to the diversity of our distribution model is that one of our most successful distributors was a builder of pig barns in Pickton, Alberta, who generated over a million in sales per annum.

Increasing the pressure on us to perform was the fact that nine other investments made by the VC had gone out of business or were underperforming. AAB Building Systems thus became the “jewel in the crown,” leading to quite intense pressure from shareholders to grow sales well beyond what I was forecasting. We had grown sales in the first 3 years from $9 million to just shy of $40 million, and we were profitable and had positive cash flow. I projected growth for the current year at roughly 20%—vastly different from what the shareholders wanted if we were to hit the “magic” target of $100 million.

I thought my projection was realistic. I based this on the fact that we were the market leader in a niche market, with what we estimated to be about a 40% market share. The market itself was not growing, and a 20% increase would mean a sizeable increase in market share.

Not altogether surprisingly, the board did not want to accept these numbers, so the pressure was on to try and find a new “magic strategy.” They were probably already thinking about finding a new CEO. Using war analogies, Rooney had “gotten us on the beach” and someone else was needed to “get them over the top.”

Things came to a head when the chair of the board, his consultant, and my CFO and I met at the Delta Hotel by the 401 to review and brainstorm strategies for growing our revenue.

For about two hours, the chair facilitated the discussion, asked me questions, and wrote the answers down on a flipchart. At the end of the back-and-forth, he asked me whether the exercise had been helpful. I thought about my answer and then said with a slight smirk on my face that, no, I did not think the session was useful.

I remember the surprised look on the chair’s face when he proceeded to ask me why that was. In response, I said all he had done was to write down what I had already said before, so why was that useful?! Then, as an afterthought, trying too late to save the situation, I said that it was useful if it had helped him gain a better idea of our strategy. Talk about patronizing!

The meeting broke up with little further comment and no clear next steps. A few days later, the chair of the board invited me to have breakfast with him at Mövenpick in North York, a place we had used quite a lot for our regular get-togethers.

Not long after we had placed our breakfast orders, the chair announced that the board (not unanimously) had decided to let me go.

How did I feel and what was the truth about my firing?

I grew emotional and felt very strongly that I had been unfairly fired after having produced what were considered by most in the company and the industry to have been excellent results. With cool reflection, however, I was able to see my own part in bringing about the end of my tenure.

The great irony is that neither I nor the chair had ever openly expressed our concerns to one another about choosing a “deafening silence,” rather than risking a tougher crucial conversation, until it was too late.

I had never spoken to him about my irritation over what was starting to feel like “micromanagement.”

And my response to the chair at our strategy meeting at the Delta—my statement that “I did not learn anything,” which, while I believed it to be true, was interpreted as an indirect “attack” on him and must have been seen as insulting, and perhaps made me seem unmanageable and not open to input—certainly hadn’t helped matters either.

In all fairness to the chair, although I believe that my firing was a mistake (which led to the company’s going bankrupt), he was not the “villain.” In fact, today we have a friendly relationship and see each other for lunch at least once a year. Ironically, we have never spoken further about what happened.

The bottom line is that our breakdown in communication meant that no other strategic options were discussed, such as injecting more funds to accelerate growth, buying a competitor, selling to one of our manufacturers, or a management buy-out.

A sad ending

Over the next 5 years, numerous CEOs came and went, but the company could never get traction. Two critically bad strategic decisions made by my immediate successor set the company on a downward trajectory that a succession of CEOs could not fix. Eventually, after a failed merger with a competitor, the company declared bankruptcy and went out of business.

Find out the six critical behaviours to help you better manage crucial conversations.

Marc Green

Hiya Tim;

Insightful article, a good read. However, what was missing for me - unless I just didn't digest it when reading - is what would have been the appropriate response instead of "nope, didn't get anything from this meeting"?

Chris Thompson

Hey Tim, tough experience for you which did not end well for the Chairs investors either.
Seems the missing insight was the Chair's , he perhaps did not recognize that already with a 40% market share growing another 150% in sales in the near future was a totally unrealistic goal. Quite typical of poorly run VC groups especially if they are under bankruptcy threat.
i don.t really see it as a comuunication issue but as a fundamental misread by a VC member.
i trust you had explained the error to him??
i say this having run a VC group for 15 years.

tim rooney Chris Thompson

Thanks for your input Chris. In answer to your question " have I explained the error to him "... the short answer is no. " Digging up old bones" - is not always the right strategy. As we meet only once per year and neither of us play important roles in each others lives anymore, it might seem like trying to score points. Moreover I assume the collapse of the company and the reasons why should be the self -evident. Be that as it may be, I am meeting for our annual lunch in October and will share the post and get his opinion.I should also say - I meet him because he is interesting , fundamentally a decent human being. I also recognize that at some time in our lives we all screw-up " big time" thinking mistakenly that our decision is the right one


Very good perspective Tim. I don't believe that you would have come out any other way though. My view is that the Delta meeting was a charad and he had made up his mind that you needed to be replaced and was looking for an excuse.


Bravely said, Tim. Maybe the company was not salavgeable at that point, no matter the strategy, and you were a needed scapegoat. Your answer to the question of did you learn anything obviously was a bit blunt and not appreciated, but it was honest. Sometimes management wants compliance and not critical thinking.

tim rooney Lorraine

You make a lot of good points Lorraine - thank you!
I think you like Athol above - I was proably "toast" before that meeting !
I think too that one of the best qualities of a manager, is sometimes to be able to hear an opinion and keep an open mind that might differ from ones own.


Wow Tim,
That was quite a case study! I hope you consider writing more case studies on the same topic. The book on Crucial conversations is what u mentioned to me years ago and i use it every now and then to brush up on my skills.. youre post touches so many emotions and thoughts! I think that there are often multiple reasons when one choose chooses to be silent in a difficult situation. Sometimes it may well be a strategy for damage control, and other times it may be because you feel that youre better off, leaving the situation at hand and moving on. Regardless, I agree that having a difficult conversation is important in some situations albeit it requires alot of practice and energy!!
Keep rambling please!
We may take some time yo read but you have a fan following!☺

tim rooney Farheen

Thank you Farheen - so glad you are getting benefit from the Crucial Conversations book . Should be taught at school !

Rob B

Reading it from my advertising experience (!!)
Its all about stimulus and response
Define the response you want before you create the stimulus ?!

tim rooney Rob B

Rob - I love the simplicity of what you said - its such great advice. It reminds me of what our parents used to say when we were growing up - " think before you speak!"


a sandwich at the factory and a management team visit to your top customer at the time would have probably yield a positive realistic strategy and result..
A flip chart in hotel meeting room on the other hand ... well the rest is history hey Tim :-)

tim rooney Mike

Yes Mike you're right - its so easy looking back - to see all the alterntives like you suggest . Rob Berry's advice above says it all - very sage advice!

Andrei Sosnovsky

Thanks for sharing the story, Tim. A good reminder that the Ego is always in the way of making sound decisions. I wonder what lessons the chair of the board took from it.
I've read the Crucial Conversations several times and still have a hard time following their guidelines consistently. It is definitely a skill that few can master.

tim rooney Andrei Sosnovsky

Yes it sounds simple ..but more difficult in reality ...perhaps the hard part is speaking up early at the "punch" level ,because we fear we might look too sensitive.
The other thing that IS easy to is to apologise, even when we think we might be right. Again one needs to our quieten our saboteur EGO and get it out the way
The chair? - as noted I see him every year but I've never asked him! Maybe this is the year !! On the other hand sometimes its good to " let sleeping dogs lie" and to move on.

Randy Burke

Communication, communication, communication. Short accounts and frequent conversations are key in any company, organization or relationship. A guy I know once saida pinch is better than a punch! I think that was you Tim! 😊

tim rooney Randy Burke

Thanks Randy - what you say is so true - nip " the little things in the bud" and don't let them get to the "bubbling over" stage , you imply you cant over communicate!

Leon Theron

Thanks for sharing this painful story, Tim. I must confess that in my career I often suffered from the lack of courage to speak up

Bill Hutton

Great post, Tim! An important reminder of the importance of addressing conflict in any relationship. Whether business or personal, the silent treatment often leads to a blow up. Thanks for sharing!

Brian Sullivan

A powerful tale we can all learn from, Tim. Whos to say how the story would have unfolded had the two of you chatted openly

Steve Monk

Great post Rooney!
Sage advice on communication and avoiding lose-lose situations.