The three parts to powerful conversations
Great workplace conversations are about three things – Process, Themes and Skills (Figure 7.2):
1. Process: Does the conversational process deliver empowerment at the front line? Does it enable greater agility? Does it provide for rapid feedback when problems need solving higher up? Is it carried out systematically and consistently throughout your organization?
2. Themes: When your people get together, are they focused on the right issues? Are the conversations framed in the right way and informed by the right content?
3. Skills: When your leaders do get people together to have the necessary conversations, do they have the right skills to hold quality conversations? What skills do you need when people do sit down to talk?
The right process
Most organizations have a form of team briefing process that ensures information is passed down the line from the senior team to front-line staff. This is usually in addition to the internal ‘push’ channels such as e-mail, internal newsletter, intranet or video. The team briefing is usually supplemented with materials to help managers communicate to their own teams, and this material is provided from the centre in some shape or form.
This sort of process has some significant weaknesses (see Figure 7.3).
Sometimes (more often than is recognized) different managers interpret the information in different ways and employees sometimes get very different messages from the top. Alignment is impossible because the messages are fragmented. By the time the message has got to the frontline, it can be significantly different from what was intended. The result is a lack of alignment to the corporate goals, a lack of cohesiveness and a lack of trust in the senior leadership team. All of which can be damaging to performance, and the opposite of inspiring.
Sometimes the messages are passed on with little or no local interpretation, causing a ‘so what?’ reaction that undermines the messages. ‘How is this in the least bit relevant to me?’ Employees lose interest and feel disconnected from senior leadership. Worse still, often the information being delivered actually is of little use or value to them, and they feel swamped with irrelevant communication.
Managers often take too long to hold the briefing sessions, and weeks can pass before employees are told of important developments, if at all. It amazes me how often leaders are surprised that staff say they have not heard important news. They feel they have communicated, and that it has been up on company notice boards and in e-mails, and that managers have been informed higher up and so should have communicated already – (‘how can you not know this?’) They feel angered that the communication has not taken place, but neglect to castigate themselves for not having any checking and quality measures in place to ensure it does!
How do you ensure that information is speedy, relevant, interpreted properly for local action, and empowering?
You have to think differently about the process, and differently about the job of line managers in the cascade process. When I have investigated these failures in different companies, one of the frequent issues that arises is the discomfort people have standing up and presenting to their teams, especially when they themselves have not yet bought in to changes from on high. Everybody, however, can ask questions without too much training. If key messages have been delivered directly to employees (thus dealing with the speed issue), then the manager’s job should be to ensure people understand the relevance of those ‘corporate’ messages, and to encourage dialogue about what this means for the team.
Discuss, decide or delegate up (see Figure 7.4)
The real purpose of the conversation is to discuss the implications of the new information, decide on the actions required and implement them as fast as possible. Teams are encouraged to discuss what this means for them, debate choices to be made and decide on how to implement. Problems or barriers that prevent implementation locally should be fed back up the line as rapidly as possible. At each higher level of management, decisions should be taken to enable action, barriers removed, and decisions fed back down again quickly. Where issues really are tricky, the sooner they are brought to the top team for a decision, the sooner problems can be resolved. If decisions are passed back up that could have been decided at a local level, senior managers should ask why people felt they could not make the decision, and correct false assumptions and perceptions about levels of improvement. This is the process that truly embeds empowerment in the organization, and enables the agility that most organizations now need.
What are the benefits of this process over classic team briefing methods? First, it ensures consistent messaging and more alignment throughout the organization. Second, it delivers speedier communication. Third, it enables the all-important local interpretation, decision making, empowerment and action. Fourth, it enables faster feedback and greater responsiveness by senior management – one of the essential ingredients of being inspiring. And fifth, it enables leaders to feel reassured that communication has taken place (no feedback = no communication).
Having put the right process in place, how do leaders ensure the process is dealing with the right issues?
The right themes
Basically, powerful conversations are about one of five themes: informing, aligning, solving, implementing or improving. Sometimes they will be isolated to just one of these areas, and at other times they will deal with all five. Always, the conversation will have the True North framework as its reference point. It will be about staying true to the purpose and values, or about achieving goals that enable progress to the vision, or about the strategic priorities or key objectives.
· Informing: You need to be clear about the intent of the conversation you want to set in motion. Is it about ensuring employees have, and understand, the information they need to do their jobs correctly? In such a conversation the main purpose will be to ensure that they are apprised of any changes, developments or new processes that might affect their jobs. Do they understand what is now required? Can they interpret this in new behaviours that are now required in their daily work? How do these contribute to True North?
· Aligning: This is the most important conversation of all. Have your people seen the organization’s purpose and values, do they know what the overall targets are for this year and do they know what the strategic priorities are? Can they directly translate these into their jobs? Can they talk about how what they do delivers the corporate purpose? Can they translate the values of the organization into their daily behaviours? If you have produced the vision framework discussed in the previous chapter, does each team in the organization have its own version of this framework? This conversation – how to contribute to the corporate purpose, values and goals – is what creates organizational alignment. It is why the leaders I have spoken to say they spend 80 per cent of their time communicating purpose and values. With a clear understanding of this framework, everybody in the organization has enough information to make decisions without having to keep going back up the line – creating agility, responsiveness and empowered employees.
One of my favourite stories is about when President John F Kennedy went to visit NASA, after having committed the USA in 1961 to achieving the goal, before the decade was out, of ‘landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth’. (His vision set the nation on an incredible and epic journey. Eight years of focused and aligned effort by thousands of Americans came to fruition on 20 July 1969, when Apollo 11’s commander Neil Armstrong stepped out of the lunar module and took ‘one small step’ in the Sea of Tranquillity, calling it ‘a giant leap for mankind’.) Many of the leaders I speak to remember this legendary anecdote about JFK. He was apparently visiting NASA headquarters and stopped to talk to a man who was holding a mop. ‘And what do you do?’ He asked. The man, a janitor, replied: ‘I’m helping to put a man on the moon, Sir.’
The leaders who quote this story love the fact that the janitor seemed connected to the mission of the organization that employed him. Few of them have heard the story about what happened next. If they had, they’d be even more pleased. JFK, curious about the janitor’s reply, apparently asked how, exactly, the janitor was helping to put a man on the moon? The cleaner, so legend goes, was very clear: his job was to keep the restrooms clean and to make sure the astronauts were well tended with towels, hand-cloths, hot water, soap and sparkling tiles and taps whenever they visited. ‘I want to make sure they know I care about them and am doing everything to keep up their morale. By doing that I’m helping to land a man on the moon.’
Whether or not the story is true, it serves to illustrate the importance of a clear ‘line of sight’ between a person’s job and the mission of the organization. Knowing exactly how what you do makes a difference, makes a huge difference to performance. This is the purpose of alignment conversations.
· Solving: Productive conversations are about finding solutions to problems. They should be held to find ways to remove barriers or do things differently in order to achieve different and better outcomes. They are not debates in which one side wins and another loses, a platform for a heated exchange of points of view without resolving any of the issues on the table.
· Implementing: This conversation is about what we are doing to make sure that everything that needs to happen is being seen to. Who is doing what, and what are the performance criteria we’re using to set standards by? By when do things need to be done? Who else do we need to involve? Very often, this conversation is also about…
· Improving: How are we doing? Have we hit our deadlines and our targets? Have we delivered to the required quality? Are our customers happy? What feedback are we getting to help us improve our performance? What help do we need from management in order to be able to do our jobs better? What barriers get in the way of us performing, and what decisions do we need from above in order to perform better?
The right skills
The process and the themes, however, are of no use whatsoever if people are not having the right quality of conversation… so let us examine the six crucial elements of powerful business conversations, which are: –
· What’s your intent? What are you gathering to achieve?
· Who needs to be included? Who can help achieve the outcome?
· What information do they need, before the conversation?
· When all are gathered, are all being fully involved in the conversation? Is it powerful and productive?
· Once decisions have been made, who now needs to be informed?
· Have we agreed measures of success, so we will know what impact our decisions are having?
The most important of these is step four, which we will address at some length. Here are each of the six elements in more detail. (see Figure 8.5)
1. Intent. Are you clear on which conversation you want to have? Is there a specific issue that needs to be addressed? What exactly are you trying to achieve? Clarity about the subject of the conversation leads to much better-quality conversations, which you are more easily able to keep focused and productive. Are you regularly returning to the vision framework and discussing strategic priorities, your values and whether you are making progress towards your purpose?
2. Include. To achieve these goals, who do you need around the table? Unless you have thought carefully about the participants, you could spoil the quality of the conversation. Who has insight that needs to be delivered to the team? Who is involved in implementing the actions to be agreed? Which partners from other teams need to participate? Can you get an internal or external ‘customer’ involved?
3. Information. Are you able to give the people involved in the conversation some information before you meet? If not, you will have to recognize that some part of the conversation will be devoted to bringing people up to speed. Would you prefer that they give it some thought before coming to the meeting, so as to generate more, and more productive, ideas? Is the information sufficient to give them a complete picture? Will some part of the meeting have to be dedicated to the missing pieces of information that will enable a fuller understanding of the challenges that now require action? Remember, the quality of the provocation for the conversation will often determine the quality of the conversation and results!
4. Involvement. Employees want their ideas to be heard. They want to feel respected and they want to be involved in making decisions that directly impact on their working lives. Unless you, as a leader, can get people to talk up and participate in a productive discussion, you will not be inspiring to employees. For those of you who think it is all about making brilliant speeches, this is the moment where you can fall flat on your face. This is where you have to give people ‘a damn good listening to’. It is not all about you, is all about them. Mostly, these conversations will not be about telling. They will be about listening.
During these conversations, you have to exhibit the skills of appreciative inquiry if you are to encourage everyone to participate. That means appreciating them as individuals, and appreciating their views and ideas. It also means being genuinely inquisitive and interested. If you keep pulling rank, all you will do is encourage them to shut up. Most importantly, it means you have to make it a safe environment for people to tell you bad news, and you have to be extraordinarily careful not to send negative signals when you receive the bad news. Bad news is essential to good leadership – it enables better informed decisions and, if you are responsive, much greater agility. During those conversations, you need to encourage everybody in the room to voice their opinions, and guarantee them a no-blame culture.
Inquiring in a way that encourages people to talk up means asking lots of open-ended questions and inviting people to give their views, and then being interested in their responses. It means asking them to inform you about how they feel and give real voice to their emotions, ideas and dreams. Interrupting and being impatient are deadly sins. Holding eye contact with them, showing them that you are listening and that you understand, by interpreting what they have to say, is key. When people give insights into the challenge, recognition will encourage them to do it again and build their confidence.
Try to include everyone in the conversation. Watch for body signals or silence. Encourage involvement.
Listen well, and interpret what people are saying, so everyone understands what is being said.
Encourage people to interact and talk to and with each other.
If you can encourage people to talk about what is working well and what could be done to make things even better, if you can encourage them to imagine new possibilities, if you can get them to interact and improvise, you can generate positive ideas and a wide variety of choices that can be made to achieve the objectives that you own.
As I have said before, employees love choice and hate change. A choice they make for themselves is one they are far more committed to. As we saw in the ‘lottery experiment’, you are likely to get people five times more committed to the choices they make than the changes that are imposed on them by others.
Having encouraged them to make these choices, and having secured their commitment to them, you now have to discuss ways to implement to best effect. Agreeing who owns actions, agreeing performance measures, agreeing deadlines and agreeing quality standards are all crucial parts of the conversation. Having done that, you obviously need to make this item Number One on your next meeting’s agenda – how are we doing against our measures?
Your people will be watching you in these meetings, so it is imperative that you watch your own behaviours. This is where they will see your values in action, through the stories you tell, the way you ask questions, the way you listen, decisions you make or help them to make together, things you act on or don’t act on, your body language and the interest you show in them. Your energy levels will have a direct impact on the energy in the room, so my advice is that you learn to listen with vigour.
Most important is to recognize the huge difference between a debate and genuine dialogue. Debate is where people each have their view, from which they are unlikely to move, and use it to beat down other people’s views in order to win the argument. Often, people with authority use their positional power to win the argument, leaving subordinates frustrated and uncommitted.
Dialogue, however, involves genuinely trying to access different perspectives to uncover new meaning and new solutions. If you want to facilitate a positive dialogue, you have to listen deeply, ensure you are suspending your assumptions and judgements, and look for win–win solutions.
· Inform. Once you have finished the conversation and decided on the actions, you now have to agree who else needs to know about the outcomes of your discussion. Have you uncovered barriers that need to be resolved higher up? How will these be resolved? Are you taking actions that will involve other parts of the organization and do they now need to be informed? Think through the implications of your decisions and make sure that you do not fail simply because you have forgotten to communicate with everyone who needs to know.
· Impact. Having set measures of success, it is now crucial to ensure that you are checking on the impact of your new behaviours. Have you put the right measurement processes in place? Are the measures being reported regularly enough? And are you using them to inform the conversation the next time you get the team together? Can you bring your customers into the next conversation to give direct feedback? A team that looks at measures together grows together.
Figure 7.6 at the end of this chapter shows how the three parts fit together:
· an empowering process in place that makes sure information flows up and down the line quickly, that discussions are made at the front line, and that feedback is passed up the line as quickly as possible;
· consistency of themes, so that all-important alignment is created, and that people always understand the context of their work, how they are progressing to goals, and how they contribute to achieving the organization’s vision;
· the right conversation skills, to ensure people are engaged and committed, high performing, and continuously improving; and that effective communication takes place up, down and across the organization to ensure coherent action.
Not having the right conversations will have a corrosive effect on your team and your chances of success. Sometimes, you’ll have to have courageous conversations, where you tackle issues you’d rather avoid. Sometimes, you’ll have to be brilliant at leading a conversation that transforms performance. To do this, you’ll have to bring your authentic self to the conversation, live your values throughout and always stay fixed on your goals.