Dear PM Advisor. Apr 28, 2014

Dear PM Advisor I had a real weird experience last week. I'm a consultant for a pharmaceutical company and I am managing a project where my client is outsourcing its packaging to a contract manufacturing organization (CMO). I am just taking over this project. I had a few calls with the CMO but wanted to plan the project with them face-to-face. 

I met with their director of quality who was extremely rude to me from the first moment. He said he had no respect for me because I wasn't a full-time employee of the pharma company. He told me the pharma company needs the CMO more than they need my client. He accused me of trying to intimidate him while trying to push his agenda down my throat. The meeting degenerated to a stand-off with me saying: "Well, my first impression of you was correct." (He threw me under the bus after my first phone conversation) and him saying: "Same applies to me!"

I've never been treated like that in 30 years of experience in the pharma world. I felt like walking out. How would you handle this situation? 

Flabbergasted in Philadelphia

Dear Flabbergasted,

Wow! First of all, sorry about your experience. That was indeed unfortunate and unprofessional. I'd love to know how you solved it.

Is it possible that you did anything before this meeting to antagonize this CMO before your arrival? It sounds like you did nothing to intimidate him during the meeting so you may have done so during that earlier call. Throwing you under the bus makes it sound like you were called out for some kind of bad behavior on your part. Perhaps you need to ask someone else who was at that phone call what their impression was.

The other possibility is that the director is a jerk. There are indeed people like that in the world and they often gravitate to positions of responsibility where they can force people to put up with their bad behavior. I've met a few jerky quality and regulatory people.

But the CMO needs your client and it's important you tell your client the attitude of the CMO. The CMO needs to get straight the customer/provider relationship.

As to what you should have done, there's nothing like a few deep breaths to defuse a tense situation like this. Allow the other person to speak first. If they refuse, speak first but use the diplomatic approach:

  1. Make a statement both of you agree with and get him to at least nod his head: "We both want to hand over this work to your CMO, right?"
  2. Show how there is an obstacle in the way of reaching this mutually agreed upon goal: Planning the project.
  3. Ask him what he thinks is the best way to proceed.
  4. Work together to remove the obstacle
And make sure he understands that, as project manager, you will be the person he has to deal with and that's easier if you develop some sort of working relationship.

Good luck,

PM advisor.

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