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 Wednesday 16 March, 2016

The Conversational Leader – four ways to promote genuine interaction in a digital world

by  Jenny Lanyon on Wednesday 16 March, 2016

An explosion of conversations

When I was first a student, in the pre-digital age, we phoned home once a week. This meant waiting in a long queue outside one of the few public telephones in the hall of residence. Essays permitting, we also wrote a few letters each term, and we looked forward to the more regular correspondence we received from our families. At the time, given the options available, this seemed enough contact.

Digital technology, and particularly mobile phones, mean that we are now in far more frequent contact with our family and friends. Our need to touch base with those closest to us has intensified, not decreased in the technological age. Conversations have exploded, and we now send a phenomenal twenty billion text messages per day, and over thirty billion ‘WhatsApp’ messages.

Leading through conversations

Leadership used to be seen as mainly about action and getting things done. In the digital age, increasingly, it needs to be focused on conversations. These are not the one-way messaging we are used to receiving – bulletins, town halls, carefully prepared presentations – but authentic, interactive conversations. Just as we seek daily interaction with those in our personal lives, increasingly we crave a similar experience at work. How can this be done?

  • Cultivate a conversational style. Boris Groysberg and Michael Sind, writing in the Harvard Business Review – – argue that leaders need to talk to employees in a two-way, conversational style where both parties can listen and contribute. This enables leaders to bridge the gap between the C-Suite and the workforce, creating an atmosphere of trust and intimacy.
  • Use a range of media. In a world where teams are often spread across a wide geographical area, even spanning continents, conversation can still take place. As Groysberg and Sind point out, meaningful conversations do not have to happen in the same room. Alternatives range from the humble telephone to Skype, and ever more sophisticated versions of video-conferencing. The medium is less important than the nature of the conversation. In a genuine exchange, leaders need to listen and ask questions, not deliver pre-processed messages.
  • Show vulnerability. Another feature of authentic conversations is openness and vulnerability. People share a lot of themselves on Facebook and other media. Our lives are lived in a far more public way than was ever the case in the past. Leaders cannot hide behind a corporate smoke-screen, they need to open up to both peers and other employees. By doing so, they in turn allow employees to say what they really think, and to have a genuine influence on the shape of the workplace.
  • Encourage robust feedback. At times, conversations can be challenging, for example, when co-workers have a view which appears to be at variance with the organisational objectives. Ultimately, though, change will be far more resilient if it integrates the diverse views of all those affected. It is not difficult to get people to jump through hoops, conform to processes and attend meetings, but the outputs will be disappointing unless they have really bought into the project.

Getting started with authentic conversations.

The place to start authentic conversations is within the leadership team. If top team members are able to speak freely and openly, they will be able to model the same behaviour throughout the organisation. The overall leader plays a key role in encouraging uncensored debate and welcoming dissent as a route to robust decision-making and improved engagement.

There is no better example of this than the legendary Alfred Sloan who led General Motors for over thirty years until 1956. He is reported on one occasion to have asked his executive team whether they were all in agreement with a decision. When they responded obediently with a collective nod, he countered with the following challenge: ‘I propose we postpone further discussion of this matter until the next meeting to give ourselves time to develop disagreement, and perhaps some understanding of what the decision is all about’

Another distinguished CEO, Alan Mulally, on joining Ford in 2006, also encouraged his senior team to be candid about their achievements. When his executives presented green ‘traffic lights’ for key initiatives in the context of a company which was making large losses, he challenged them to come forward with honest assessments. He applauded the first ‘red light’ saying that he appreciated the clear visibility. Mulally was only able to achieve this level of trust by also being open about his own shortcomings, and creating a culture in which there was a ‘willingness to openly speak about complex, taboo subjects.’

Finally, coaching takes the form of a conversation about the organisational conversation. It provides leaders with the opportunity to explore the role that they play in that conversation and to consider which new themes they would like to initiate.

How are you facilitating conversations in your organisation? I would be very interested to hear your thoughts.

Jenny Lanyon is an executive coach and a consulting partner at Vivos Consulting.